STILLWATER — When Van Malone's NFL career ended in 1998, he considered becoming a police officer. Or perhaps a counselor who helped children stay off the streets and out of trouble.
Coaching wasn't on his mind at that time — until an old high school coach tricked him.
Elton Conger, then an assistant at Waltrip High School in Houston, convinced Malone to have a harmless chat with the football team at his alma mater. Malone naturally demanded the respect of the youngsters because of his pro background. But the players could also relate to him as one of their own.
“You could hear a pin drop when he was talking,” Conger said. “He commanded the attention right away. We had other pro ballers come through there, they didn't have that nectar to get the kids' immediate attention and hold it.
“He just had a knack for spellbinding the kids.”
A week later, Malone was invited to spend a game on the Waltrip sideline. And he couldn't keep quiet. He started talking — and coaching.
“Then I was there coaching that next week,” Malone said with a laugh. “And I haven't left it yet.”
Almost 14 years later, Malone is Oklahoma State's new safeties coach, helping fill the void left by former longtime Cowboy assistant Joe DeForest.
“With having this opportunity, I think there's great responsibility,” Malone said. “There will be nobody that will work harder than I will. There will be nobody that will do it with as much enthusiasm as I will, because I've been so blessed.”
Those who have most influenced Malone's coaching career — most notably Conger and Gary Darnell, who was an assistant when Malone starred at Texas — always thought Malone could have a future in that field.
He clearly had the knowledge of the game, but he also had the infectious personality to teach and motivate. That showed through when he started a nonprofit charity organization in Houston called “New Beginnings” in 1997. Or when he also helped coach the Waltrip girls basketball team and became a trusted sounding board for those players.
“They would run straight to (Malone),” Conger said. “I didn't even have to handle problems no more.”
But when college graduate assistant job offers started to come Malone's way while coaching at Waltrip, he always resisted. He did not think he would be able to mentor college players the same way, because their egos would have grown too large.
His own former players changed his mind.
“I'd send guys off from high school and they'd come back and they'd still have that look,” Malone said. “That, ‘I want to learn. Teach me. Coach me,' look. And they'd bring friends.
“We'd work with them in the summertime and talk to them and continue to try to be an impact on their lives. I said, ‘You know what? The next time I get an opportunity to coach in college, I think I'm gonna take it.'”
That next opportunity came in 2003 — at North Dakota State.
The job as the wide receivers coach was a significant pay cut and in a part of the country that was totally foreign to the Texas-bred Malone. But to sweeten the deal, NDSU offered to pay for Malone's wife, Nedra, to start her Master's degree.
“That's not necessarily what I had (in mind),” Malone said of the NDSU job. “But when the door is open, it laid out perfectly.”
That bold move also caught the attention of Darnell, who had since become the head coach at Western Michigan. And he hired Malone away the first chance he got, when he needed a new cornerbacks coach the following season.
Malone points to those first two college stops as especially crucial in his development as a coach.
He learned what it was like to be on the staff of a bad team — WMU went 1-10 in 2004 — and how the head coach's positive attitude, even in tough times, could still trickle down through the rest of the program. He learned how to fill out recruiting paperwork and how to run meetings.
Most importantly, Darnell said, Malone asked questions and listened.
“He knew there was more than one way to do it,” Darnell said. “I always felt like, ‘Here's a guy who played in the NFL for eight years and he's asking me how to play safety.'
“He wanted to know, and then he would compare the notes and then he would make a good decision based on what he knew and what he had experienced.”
Malone's next stops included North Texas (defensive backs, 2005) Texas A&M (secondary coach 2006-09) and Tulsa (secondary and recruiting coordinator, 2010-11).
Moving to OSU next felt like the right step because of some already-established relationships with others on the Cowboy staff. He got to know cornerbacks coach Jason Jones on the recruiting trail. Director of recruiting Johnny Barr had recruited him as a player. Defensive coordinator Bill Young and Darnell played together at OSU in the 1960s.
Malone also appreciated the way head coach Mike Gundy runs the program.
“When you talk about head coaches, a lot of times you say ‘work for,' but with (Gundy) I say ‘work with,'” Malone said. “(Gundy is) definitely who's in charge, but he wants you to have input.
“He wants you to coach your position. You are the CEO of your group. This is your company — the safety company. I think that when you've been doing it a minute, when you're experienced and have done it, it should be that way.”
Malone has since gone through a spring with his new players, a group of safeties who must find a way to replace Markelle Martin but return four key juniors in Daytawion Lowe, Lavocheya Cooper, Zack Craig and Shamiel Gary.
Malone is also starting to settle into his new surroundings. Nedra and their three sons, Van, Vaughn and Vincent, made the move from Tulsa to Stillwater after the school year ended.
Now Malone is ready for the next challenge that comes with taking a spot on the staff of the defending Big 12 champions. His first OSU fall camp begins this Friday.
“The opportunity to come in here and coach on a team that's had so much success,” Malone said, “and I think is moving in the direction and narrowing the focus to be at the top of the heap, I'm fired up about it. There's a little drive for me.
“Some coaches, they don't like the pressure of this. I like the pressure of this.”