NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. – If he allows himself a moment in the Rose Bowl on Monday, the laser-focused Gus Malzahn may think of all the men he's coaching for but has never met.
The guys who line their own fields. Grade papers at night. Drive a player or two home after practice. The high school coaches out there who never got into the profession to be rich, and never will be, but love the game and love working with young men.
Twenty years ago, Malzahn was that guy.
The man with the brilliant offensive mind actually broke into coaching as a 25-year-old defensive coordinator at Hughes High School in his home state of Arkansas. What followed that one season as an assistant was a 14-year run of high-school coaching excellence that made Malzahn a giant figure in Arkansas football.
That paved the way for his jump to college – as offensive coordinator to Houston Nutt at Arkansas, then under Todd Graham at Tulsa, and finally under Gene Chizik on Auburn's national championship run in 2010. After one season as a college head coach at Arkansas State, Malzahn was brought back to Auburn to restore an unraveling program, and the immediate result is a 12-1 record and berth in the BCS Championship Game on Monday night against Florida State.
But at his core, Gus Malzahn is the same guy who did the grunt work at Hughes High and Shiloh Christian and Springdale on his way up.
"You know, some of the fun things about coaching high school is mowing grass and moving water pipes and cleaning out locker rooms and toilets," Malzahn said here Saturday. "I think that's the grass roots. That's where you really learn your work ethic and really your appreciation."
There seems to be a spreading appreciation of high-school coaches and what they can contribute at the higher levels of the sport. The more chances they get, the more success stories you hear.
Art Briles, who took Baylor to the Big 12 championship and its first-ever BCS bowl? He did 16 years as a high-school head coach in Texas before breaking into the college ranks as an assistant to Mike Leach at Texas Tech.
Graham, who hired Malzahn at Tulsa and this year won the Pac-12 South at Arizona State? Four years as a prep head coach in Oklahoma and six in Texas before linking up with Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia.
Chad Morris is the highest-paid assistant coach in the country, earning $1.3 million per year at Clemson. But before getting his shot in college as an assistant to Graham at Tulsa, he spent 16 seasons coaching Texas high school ball.
Malzahn said he, Graham, Morris and current Arizona State offensive coordinator Mike Norvell have formed something of an advisory and advocacy group for high school coaches, helping them get college opportunities.
"Oh, there's some great high school coaches out there that just given the opportunity could be doing the exact same things I'm doing here," Malzahn said. "I'm just one of the few that were blessed to get an opportunity to coach in college because the thing about football, the X's and O's and dealing with players, they're exactly the same in high school as they are college. The biggest difference is just dealing with the recruiting part, the media part and the boosters."
There have been some notable crash-and-burn attempts to go straight from high school to a Division I college as a head coach – Gerry Faust is the famous one from the 1980s at Notre Dame, but Todd Dodge was a similar bust on a smaller scale at North Texas, going 8-40 from 2007-10. Thirty years ago, as Faust was flopping in South Bend, Gary Barnett moved from star high-school head coach to small-college head coach, on his way to bigger and better.
After 11 seasons at Air Academy High School and two seasons at Fort Lewis College, Barnett hooked on with Bill McCartney at Colorado. He was the play-caller when the Buffaloes beat Notre Dame in the 1991 Orange Bowl to win their only national title.
That set the stage for his move to Northwestern, where Barnett guided the Wildcats to a wildly improbable Big Ten title and Rose Bowl berth. He followed that with a Big 12 title and Fiesta Bowl berth as head coach at Colorado.
But his coaching identity was formed under the dim Friday night lights at Air Academy High in Colorado Springs, Colo., and in the classroom teaching World History, U.S. History, American Military History and Economics.
"You learn to love kids coaching in high school," Barnett said. "You learn it's about the kids, not about you. You're a father figure, a coach, a mentor, a teacher. You just have a different outlook on your players that someone who never stood in a classroom and taught all kinds of kids. Your whole appreciation is different than just looking at a kid as a tackle or a linebacker."
In 16 years as a college head coach, Barnett preferred hiring assistants who had worked on the high-school level to those who had not.
"Those guys want to teach," he said. "The guys that go right from playing to being (graduate assistants) and college coaches – especially the ones who were good players – have a harder time explaining to players how to do things. They get frustrated when less-talented players can't do it as well as they did."
The guy charged with trying to stop Malzahn's offense Monday night is Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. He was the son of a longtime high school coach at Plainview High in Rainsville, Ala., and became a head coach at the prep level himself before moving up to Alabama as an assistant.
Pruitt says the happiest days of his young life were spent tagging along after father Dale and his team at Plainview High.
"I was never sent to a babysitter," Pruitt said. "I went with my dad. He's lining off the fields, he's mowing the grass, I'm hanging around the fieldhouse."
Watching his dad work, Pruitt made up his mind – he wanted to be a coach, too. A high school coach.
"You don't get in that business to make money," he said. "You get into it to work with kids at a young age. It was a great experience.
"In high school, you worked with what you had. Some years you had a 280-pound three-technique (defensive tackle), some years he was 175 pounds. There was no recruiting someone better. … There weren't many Nick Marshalls (the Auburn quarterback) running around."
To prepare for Nick Marshall and the rest of the Tigers, Pruitt has, of course, devoured hours of film. But for three days over the holidays he also sought outside counsel on how to defend Auburn.
He sent film to his dad, Dale. The high school coach.