Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn has accepted that traveling back home to Arkansas is always going to be different.
Graduating from Fort Smith High School, Malzahn was a walk-on wide receiver at the University of Arkansas for two years before transferring to Henderson State University to complete a physical education degree.
Once Malzahn received his degree out of Arkadelphia, Arkansas, he took a job as a defensive coordinator in Hughes, Arkansas, for two seasons prior to his first gig at head coach. It took him two seasons to reach the state championship, losing to Lonoke High School in 1994.
Malzahn would transfer to Shiloh Christian in the summer of 1996 accompanied by his definitive hurry-up, no-huddle offense.
In 1998, Malzahn’s offense set a national record with 66 passing touchdowns for the season. His quarterback, Josh Floyd, set national records with 5,878 total yards en route to back-to-back state championships for the Saints.
In 2000, Malzahn left Shiloh Christian for Springdale High School where, before becoming the offensive coordinator at the University of Arkansas, he became a household name.
The Bulldogs’ 2005 squad went 13-0 before pummeling West Memphis in the 5A state championship 54-20. Both of his quarterbacks during his five-year tenure, Mitch Mustain and Malzahn’s eventual offensive coordinator at Auburn, Rhett Lashlee, became highly touted prospects that eventually joined Malzahn as Razorbacks.
During his sole season as an offensive coordinator for the Razorbacks, Malzahn provided star running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones a platform to perform, with both rushing for over 1,000 yards.
Arkansas’ 10-4 record gave head coach Houston Nutt another year to save his own job, while Malzahn received nationwide interest as a future offensive coordinator or head coach.
The genius that coincided with the success of Arkansas high school football translated over to the University of Tulsa, where the Golden Hurricane maintained a top-five offense during Malzahn’s short two-season tenure.
Then, notably, Malzahn became Gene Chizik’s offensive coordinator at Auburn University in 2008 and immediately broke the program’s single-season record for total offense. His partnership with Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton in 2010 was enough to steer the ship toward his first national championship and Auburn’s first since 1957.
After three years of undoubted and undeniable success on The Plains, Malzahn had acquired the same notoriety and associated mythology that took him 15 years in Arkansas.
It was safe to say that Malzahn had found a new home.
Once he returned in 2013 to take over as head coach for the Tigers, after winning the Sun Belt Conference in his lone season at Arkansas State, Malzahn came to stay. The mysterious, miraculous 2013 season was not uncharacteristic of Malzahn’s previous success, but it did bring Gustavo a new sense of pressure and expectation.
Now in his fourth season at Auburn, Malzahn has accumulated a 40-20 record and consistently attained top 10 recruiting classes.
After the hiring of offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey in 2017, Malzahn's play-calling abilities and offensive identity was seemingly thrown out the door.
The success that was Malzahn, and the offensive prowess that spiritually coincided with the name, is now regarded as faded and lost.
But now Malzahn is going back home, and expects to earn a victory.