Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn on Coaching High School

By Dan Guttenplan, FNF Coaches Managing Editor

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn started his career as defensive coordinator of Hughes High (Ark.) in 1991. He later spent 12 years as a high school head coach, including five at Springdale High (Ark.), where he won a state championship in 2005.

February is a time for coaches to install new schemes and make personnel changes on the coaching staff. What is the first thing a coach should do when installing a new scheme?

“The first thing you’ve got to do is coach up the coaches. That’s where it starts – teaching the coaches so they understand how to coach it. The next step is the players.”

What if an assistant coach isn’t in favor of installing the new scheme?

“It always starts with the head coach. Whatever that head coach’s philosophy is – whether he wants to go up-tempo or ball-control – it’s up to the head coach to set the tone. If he wants to play fast, the defensive assistants need to have the same philosophy. The real key to success is having the head coach and coordinators on the same page.”

Once the coaches buy in, how do you sell the new scheme to players?

“I’ve always felt like you’re teaching. The best coaches I’ve been around have been great teachers. Install a play in the classroom. Teach the guys. Have video to confirm or help with it. The next step is going out and doing it.”

I know you like to play fast in games. Do you also practice fast when you’re installing a new scheme?

“It’s always good to walk through a new play first. Take it to the practice field second.”

Is it difficult to get the players to buy in when you’re asking them to ignore their natural instincts?

“Whatever you do, you have to believe in it. Then you have to present it to the players and staff with great enthusiasm. Present it with passion – ‘This is who we are. Here’s what we believe in. Let’s put our goals up on the wall.’ The key is passion and enthusiasm when you’re selling your players.”

I think the biggest difference between college and high school when it comes to scheme is that you can recruit players to fit your scheme in college. At the high school level, you get the kids in the school’s geographic location. Should a high school coach be flexible about his scheme based on personnel?

“As a coach, especially in high school, you have to have a philosophy you believe in – a core philosophy that never changes. You evaluate the personnel you have, and build around those strengths. But don’t lose the core philosophy of who you want to be.”

I read that you’ll be turning over play-calling duties to your offensive coordinator in 2017. You made your name with your offensive scheme. What went into the decision to give up that responsibility?

“If I were still coaching in high school, I don’t know if I’d do the same thing. Whatever the job description is for that particular level, a head coach has to make the decision about what’s best for his program.”

So, you don’t think it’s too much for a high school coach to manage the head coaching responsibilities in addition to calling plays?

“I don’t think it’s too much. In our situation, there are so many moving parts. It’s a pretty big job. I think a lot of really successful coaches can do all of the above.”

Many high school coaches say dealing with parents is their biggest challenge. How do you handle criticism while maintaining your core philosophy?

“I would over-communicate with parents. I would be honest about my expectations and what I thought the program would be like. I always felt that was the best way – over-communicate.”

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