Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn wakes up without an alarm clock. He doesn’t need one, because the offensive machine that is his brain has a self-timer and turns on automatically.
Why not wake up at 5:00 a.m. or 5:15? Because waking up at 5:07 is not what people expect. Malzahn likes to keep them guessing. Tomorrow, he might wake up at 5:12.
His eyes open, he reaches for one of the four pens lined up on his nightstand. On a yellow legal pad, he sketches out the visions that came to him during his sleep. One involves the center turned sideways and snapping the ball directly to a wide receiver.
He once had an alarm clock, but one morning he lined it up as a toaster. It was so successful at that position it now resides in his kitchen, where it is currently leading all appliances in charred-bread production.
5:45 a.m. to 7 a.m.
The morning routine.
His alarm clock has the toast prepared. Malzahn has a three-minute egg — trimmed down to a one-minute-11-second process — and a bowl of instant oatmeal. He is working on something faster than instant because the oatmeal’s pace annoys him, but he has not yet figured out how to rip the time-space continuum and have it cooked before it is opened.
After breakfast, Malzahn retrieves the paper from the front porch. It is always sitting perfectly on his doormat. When he first moved to the neighborhood, he had to retrieve the paper from the bushes a few times, but he took the paperboy aside and showed him an overhand throwing technique that allows him to make both the short and long throws with accuracy.
He also took a look at the paperboy’s route and reordered a couple of stops. What used to take the paperboy two hours to complete now takes an hour and 16 minutes. Malzahn is convinced he can still trim that by four minutes.
He never reads the sports section, because it only tells him what has happened. Malzahn is more interested in what will happen.
He works the Sudoku puzzle. In pen. Instead of whole numbers, Malzahn uses values like 4.25 and 3.333 to make it more interesting. He finishes in four minutes and nine seconds. The numbers all add up.
He works the crossword puzzle. In pen. He forgoes English and uses words from a variety of languages to complete the grid. He finishes in six minutes and 34 seconds. The words all connect. Reading them sequentially, he has written a short story warning about the travails of inefficiency. And a haiku.
Malzahn does not read the comics. He doesn’t have time to laugh.
Besides, he noticed something about Lucy van Pelt’s hold that could help Charlie Brown connect with the football. He has also got some advice on the number of steps Brown takes before attempting the kick.
If Brown could cut those down, Malzahn is sure Brown could score on the play. But, sadly, Charles Schultz is dead, and won’t take his calls, so he cannot get it corrected. This annoys Malzahn.
Malzahn spends the remainder of the morning organizing his impressive visor collection.
Malzahn departs for work. Today it is 7:04. Tomorrow? You will have to wait and see.
Yesterday, Malzahn turned left out of his driveway. Today, he turns right.
Yesterday, he drove a unicycle to work because he could dodge between cars and get there faster.
Today, he is on foot. Carrying a canoe. Malzahn cuts across the field across from his house, drops the canoe in a stream, floats under the highway and steers it to the creek bank. He carries the canoe up a hill and then slides down the grass to the parking lot. He parks the canoe in his space and heads into his office.
His boss, Gene Chizik, left for work at 6:45 and had less distance to cover than Malzahn. When Chizik arrives after fighting morning traffic, Malzahn’s canoe is already parked. For all Chizik knows, there will be a pair of roller skates and a box of bottle rockets in Malzahn’s space tomorrow. Chizik is no longer surprised.
8:12 a.m. to 10:03 a.m.
Why 8:12? Because … yeah, the element of surprise.
Malzahn watches samurai movies and Westerns. Not because he enjoys them, but because the samurai teach him methods of attack and the Westerns give him ideas for herding. He sometimes likes to think of his offenses as cowboys on horseback herding the defenses where they want them to go.
Then branding them.
Malzahn thinks cows are dumb. Like opposing defenders. He likes to brand them. Lots of opposing defenders carry his searing, still-smoking brand.
10:04 a.m. to 12:18 p.m.
For more than two hours, Malzahn does nothing but sketch plays. In pen.
The first 23 minutes are devoted solely to the sideways snap to the wide receiver concept that came to him the night before. By 10:31, the play has 14 variations depending on personnel.
In one, the center becomes an eligible receiver. Malzahn knows this is not permitted by NCAA rules, but he likes thinking up things like this in case he is ever in charge of the NCAA and can eliminate such ridiculous constraints. The NCAA annoys him.
Malzahn has his secretary draft a letter to the NCAA asking them to consider a variety of changes, including one that would allow the entire offensive line to go in motion, leaving a receiver to snap the ball.
His secretary types 432 words per minute, but he is convinced he can have her up to 450 by December.
Malzahn checks in with offensive line coach Jeff Grimes to see if he has ever taught a sideways snapping technique. When Grimes says no, Malzahn drops to the ground, grabs a potted plant and executes a perfect sideways snap down the hallway.
“Like that,” he says.
In the quiet of his office, Chizik hears the potted plant hit the wall and explode. He sighs, but doesn’t look up. Yesterday Malzahn destroyed a picture frame while explaining a new blocking alignment to running backs coach Curtis Luper.
The day before that, Malzahn tore off all the moulding around Chizik’s door to demonstrate a potential offensive set he had learned from a samurai movie.
Malzahn returns to the office, takes his sketches, orders them in a notebook and puts them in a safe. His safe is large. It contains 1,697 notebooks. Each notebook contains 1,000 pages. Each page contains five offensive plays.
Later, he will have his secretary laminate the pages. On game day he’ll pull one page out of one book at random. Doesn’t matter which book. It is all he needs.
Malzahn knows that if archaeologists from the planet Barbaton find his notebooks a thousand years from now, they will be able to use the information contained in them to score against the rival Trampatodes. A lot.
12:19 p.m. to 1:14 p.m.
Instead of lunch, Malzahn eats breakfast again. He orders two pancakes smothered in onion gravy. He has now ordered the same thing for three straight days. When he comes back in tomorrow, the waitress will think she knows what he is going to do.
Boy, will she be surprised.
Malzahn will order French toast with ranch dressing tomorrow. The waitress won’t know what hit her. It’s part of the plan.
1:14 p.m. to 1:18 p.m.
Malzahn draws devil horns, glasses and a beard on a picture of Houston Nutt, just for fun. He blacks out a few of Nutt’s teeth for good measure.
1:24 p.m. to 6:36 p.m.
The remainder of Malzahn’s workday is occupied with practice and team meetings.
The matters discussed during this time are privileged and confidential. Were they disclosed, you would have to be debriefed. Nobody wants you walking around without your briefs.
Besides, the totality of Malzahn’s overall scheme is too much for the average mind to handle. If you saw it, you could not comprehend it. You would drive yourself insane trying to grasp it.
“Does a tree that falls in the forest make noise if no one is there to hear it?” Malzahn knows the answer to this question. He also knows how to make the tree lead the nation in total fallage. And foliage.
But forestry is not his passion.
6:37 p.m. until …
From 6:37 on, Malzahn isn’t a football coach any more. He is just an average dad, playing with his kids, talking to his wife and doing the normal mundane things every dad in the world does.
If every dad were an offensive genius.
He helps his wife with the dishes by first drawing out an alignment where the youngest child lines up behind his wife and takes a direct snap of the rinsed glasses so he can place them on the dishwasher rack. Dishwashing time is trimmed in half. Malzahn knows, because he times it with a stopwatch.
He reads to his children, taking care to explain that Hansel and Gretel could easily have avoided the grasp of the witch if Hansel had lined up in an offset formation and been used as a decoy. He would have drawn the witch in, and before she realized what was happening, the pair could have scored a huge snack from her gingerbread house.
Malzahn also thinks the Three Little Pigs should have gone on the offensive, as they clearly had a numbers advantage on the wolf.
When he and his wife retire for the night, she puts her foot down.
“Offensive genius or not, Mr. Malzahn, you’re leaving the stopwatch on the counter. You are not bringing it in there,” she says with a nod of her head toward the bedroom door.
Malzahn contemplates pointing out how many more times he can score when he is efficient, but in the end agrees.
Besides, he has a clock in his head and she can’t stop him from ticking off the mental seconds. It’s all about precision and timing.
The house, long dark, grows quiet.
As Malzahn drifts off to sleep, the wheels in his brain start to spin, conjuring new visions, new formations, new ways to attack. Tomorrow morning when he wakes at 5:12 a.m., or maybe 5:03, he will start a new day of sketching, scheming and planning.
Malzahn’s sleep is peaceful.
Across the South, however, the remaining 10 defensive coordinators who will soon match football wits with Malzahn from across the field do not sleep as soundly.
Their dreams are not so pleasant.
Photo via The Auburner – Check out their take on Malzahn’s Bizarre-O-World here.
In addition to writing and taking photos for The War Eagle Reader, Kevin Strickland serves as the sports editor for the Pickens County Herald, a weekly newspaper in West Alabama where he has covered high school and college sports for the past 15 years. In his career as a sportswriter, he has covered 12 state championship teams; followed the careers of three local football players who starred at college and played in the NFL and covered two local baseball players who played in the majors. He has won numerous Alabama Press Association writing awards including being named the state’s Best Sports Column in 2004.
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