AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn coach Gus Malzahn insists it’s not about him.
Malzahn is making his latest return to his home state Saturday to face the Arkansas Razorbacks, where he unwittingly became a polarizing figure starting with a short-lived stint as offensive coordinator that proved more speed bump than launching pad in his fast-rising career.
He’s taking the eighth-ranked Tigers to Fayetteville at a time when the Razorbacks are trying to turn things around under their own first-year coach, Bret Bielema.
Auburn tight end C.J. Uzomah doesn’t think it’s really just another game to Malzahn, whatever the coach says publicly.
“We know it’ll be an emotional deal, an emotional reunion,” Uzomah said. “As players, we’re going to try our hardest to give everything we have for this game. We know how much it means to him to be back in his home state and to get a win there. We’re going to prepare harder than we’ve ever prepared and try to get this victory.”
Almost fittingly, the week began with Bielema accusing Auburn of chicanery involving a game tape that didn’t completely match the televised version.
Malzahn, who’s more likely to deliver mundane coachspeak than controversy-stirring sound-bytes, hasn’t had a triumphant return to Fayetteville yet. As offensive coordinator at Auburn and Tulsa, he’s 0-3 at Arkansas, also the only stop where his innovative offense didn’t take off.
As a high school coach, Malzahn’s résumé was among the best in Arkansas history. He guided three schools to seven state championship games in 14 seasons, winning a combined three titles and beginning the trend of uptempo spread offenses that dominate the state today.
Despite all that success, a segment of fans in the state associate him with the turmoil that engulfed the Razorbacks during the 2006 season, stemming largely from rumors of problems between Malzahn’s offensive philosophy and that of former Arkansas coach Houston Nutt.
Malzahn diplomatically steers clear of that topic.
“I will be forever grateful for Houston Nutt for giving me the opportunity to get into college football, especially being a high school coach,” he said.
Malzahn left Arkansas after one season for the same job at Tulsa. That’s also how long he stayed as head coach at Arkansas State before returning this season to Auburn, where he helped the Tigers win the 2010 national title.
A longtime Malzahn friend said critics have gotten the wrong impression.
“Ninety-five percent of their information is not all accurate,” said Springdale (Ark.) Har-Ber coach Chris Wood, Malzahn’s offensive coordinator at Shiloh Christian and Springdale High.
“Unless you know the details, it’s hard to throw stones. But you can’t hold it against them. They feel strongly about their convictions, and that’s a person’s right to do that. I know Gus, and I know his integrity, his passion and understanding. He’s a godly man.”
Malzahn seems bemused by all the attention paid to his return to Arkansas, insisting that the first return trip or two felt different but now it’s just “a normal game on the road.”
Uzomah expects a mixed reception for his coach.
“Some people definitely will love to see him there in generally, kind of like a Peyton Manning deal when he went back to Indianapolis,” he said. “Then again, there will be some people booing. He’s prepared for that. He’s ready for it. As a team, we are as well. It’s going to be mixed emotions.”
It’s not just Malzahn’s homecoming. Most of his staff was with him at Arkansas State last season and other staffers have close ties to the state.
Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee started his college career as an offensive student graduate assistant at Arkansas in 2006 after working for Malzahn at Springdale High School. He was a backup quarterback for the Razorbacks from 2002-04, and set a number of state records as quarterback for Malzahn and Wood at Shiloh Christian.
Running backs coach Tim Horton is a former Arkansas assistant, who was a team captain while playing for the Razorbacks in the late 1980s.
Malzahn said his parents and in-laws will be at the game, along with friends.
Lashlee’s worrying about what kind of reception Malzahn will receive.
“I haven’t thought about it,” Lashlee said. “I don’t know what kind of reception he would or wouldn’t get. I do know this, there are a lot of people back there in that state that think a lot of him and he’s earned a lot of respect.”