AUBURN, Ala. – Nolan Richardson was running the "40 minutes of hell" style of basketball when Gus Malzahn first felt the need for speed as a high school coach in Arkansas.
If it worked for 40 minutes, then why not 60? And if your players can't outrun opposing teams, No. 1 Auburn's offensive coordinator figured, out-hurry them. Skip the huddle, keep moving and let it fly — like Richardson's Razorbacks hoops teams that were competing for national titles in the mid-1990s.
"Gus felt if you could get that tempo in a football game, the more snaps you get, you could wear down the defense and cancel out the speed factor," recalled Chris Wood, who was Malzahn's offensive coordinator at Shiloh Christian High School during that 1997 transition.
Malzahn hasn't slowed down since. His creative, potent offense has showcased Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Cam Newton and helped lead the Tigers (13-0) into the national championship game against Oregon, another team that likes to push the pace. It has also landed Malzahn a new three-year deal worth at least $1 million and up to $1.3 million including bonuses.
In two years, he has elevated Auburn from 110th nationally in scoring offense to sixth, setting a tempo geared toward keeping opposing defenses offbalance and backpedaling.
"We're a two-back, run and play-action team with an emphasis on throwing the ball vertically down the field and running our offense at a two-minute pace the entire game," Malzahn said. "That's who we are."
And who's Malzahn? He's an ultra-intense, offensive guru who memorizes his gameplans, furiously chews gum on the sidelines and has a focus frequently described by players like tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen as "24-7 football."
When the team went to a local water park before the season, Malzahn wasn't relaxing.
"He was just going around on the rides talking to people about football, picking people out and telling them what they did wrong on this or what they did wrong on that and how to get better," Lutzenkirchen said. "He's definitely an interesting personality where he is just always on his business."
Malzahn's success in his fifth year out of the high school ranks made him a candidate for Vanderbilt's head coaching job.
The Tigers rank sixth nationally in rushing offense and seventh in total yards. But they also average more yards per pass attempt (10.49) than any other FBS team and only two teams average more per rush (6.2).
The presence of Newton certainly makes those kinds of numbers easier to produce. The Tigers also thrived with dropback passer Chris Todd at quarterback last season, ranking in the top 17 in total and scoring offense.
The offense evolved again as Malzahn increasingly took advantage of Newton's running ability, and Wood thinks that flexibility sets Malzahn apart from some offensive coordinators.
"He builds that offense to fit his personnel," said Wood, now head coach at Harbor High School in Arkansas. "There's always little changes and little tweaks. The one thing that stays constant is the trick plays he fits into his scheme and tries to run in the first quarter or the first half."
Malzahn's plays come with an assortment of formations, motions and personnel groupings.
He starts memorizing the plan on Wednesdays, writing it down five or six times until he knows what he wants to call in different situations. An offense where the players are instructed to hand the ball to the official immediately after each play doesn't wait on the coach to thumb through notes.
"Tempo is one of the biggest advantages in college football right now," Malzahn said. "Once we get tempo, we kind of get our rhythm and that's when we're at our best."
Malzahn said he just needs to know which hash mark the ball is on, what spot on the field and down and distance. Each coach is assigned to a specific area of the defense to keep an eye out for adjustments on the fly.
The focus on speed doesn't stop there. In a seemingly high-tech offense, the plays are signaled in using flip cards on the sidelines including numbers and a variety of colors. Backup quarterbacks Neil Caudle (colors) and Barrett Trotter (numbers) handle the flipping, but sometimes even the cards are a decoy signaling that the real play is coming through a person.
Malzahn and Wood cooked up the system when they were in Arkansas together. When they faced each other on opposing sidelines, Malzahn said even his former assistant couldn't figure out the plays.
Malzahn jokes about how the number of potential combinations is "top-secret." Trotter offers only the division of labor between himself and Caudle.
"Other than that, I can't really tell you much," he said. "We're on the headsets and listening to what plays we're calling. It especially can be hectic sometimes if we're waiting to see what the defense is going to be in and check a play. We've got to be ready to flip it to something else and be ready to change."
Change is what Malzahn did at Shiloh Christian after his first team went 6-6. They started games with a few no-huddle plays.
"It seemed like every game we'd get great momentum and then all of a sudden we go back to huddling and we lose that edge," Malzahn said. "So we said, 'Let's try this the whole game.'
"As more teams started doing it, it wasn't as big an advantage. But college football right now, it's obviously such a big advantage. And the defenses are so good at this level, too, so you look for any advantage you can."