JONESBORO, Ark. (AP) — Gus Malzahn walked out of his office in the Arkansas State football complex, his eyes on the sheet of paper in his hands.
The first-year Red Wolves coach walked past several ongoing meetings on his way down the hall, but his head stayed down, completely focused on the task at hand.
Malzahn finished his follow-up mission moments later, making sure the final phone calls had been made to ensure that night's gathering for the team's freshmen at his home would be a success. Then it was on to the next item on the checklist, finalizing plans to have the yard lines painted on the team's practice field for a high school football camp.
The former Auburn offensive coordinator, who helped the Tigers win a national championship, was right back at home — both in his native state of Arkansas and in the role of head coach.
Malzahn was hired away from Auburn by Arkansas State in December, a stunning move by a school usually relegated to the shadows of Southeastern Conference member Arkansas. He was hired to replace current Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze, who guided the Red Wolves to a 10-win season and Sun Belt Conference championship last season.
Since his hiring, Malzahn has been both ambassador and football coach. It's a familiar role, one he perfected while paying his dues as a high school coach for 14 years in Arkansas. It is equal parts winning and marketing, with plenty on both fronts.
"He's extremely focused, laser focused and he has a plan," assistant coach David Gunn said. "He knows what it takes to be successful, going back to high school. It has been successful for him, as a coordinator at a national championship football program. Those things don't happen by accident. He knows where he wants to take this football program."
Outside of directing the Red Wolves through spring practice, much of Malzahn's time since his hiring has been spent on matters outside of actual football. He's been busy making the program his own in his first and long-awaited opportunity as a collegiate head coach.
One of his first priorities was raising the profile of Arkansas State, both at home and across the nation. He did that at first by saying he planned on turning the Red Wolves into the "Boise State of college football," a seemingly audacious claim given that the program didn't turn Division I until 1992 and before last season hadn't won double-digit games since 1986, when it was a member of the I-AA Southland Conference.
Even Malzahn admitted the northeast Arkansas school was far off his radar while growing up on the other side of the state.
"A lot of times in northwest Arkansas and Fort Smith, you don't even think of Arkansas State as being in the state of Arkansas," Malzahn said. "It's almost like it's in another state. You don't hear much about it."
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