April 1, 2014
Bobby Bentley helped Byrnes High School win six South Carolina state championships (Lauren Barnard photo)
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. - It was by sheer chance that Gus Malzahn and Bobby Bentley, legendary high school coaches from different parts of the country, met on a summer day in Hoover.
Bentley was on his way to winning four consecutive state championships at Byrnes High School in Duncan, S.C. Malzahn would soon be leaving a championship program at Springdale (Ark.) High School to become offensive coordinator at Arkansas. They were in Hoover for the annual 7-on-7 tournament.
A friendship grew between two coaches who had built their careers around dynamic offenses and had developed record-breaking quarterbacks.
"We stayed at the same hotel, and ever since we've kind of had a connection," Bentley says.
When Malzahn left Arkansas after one year to move to Tulsa, Bentley went to visit and talk offense.
"We always said we wanted to work together," Bentley says.
Malzahn climbed the college coaching ladder, moving to Auburn as offensive coordinator, to Arkansas State as head coach and back to Auburn as head coach. He and Bentley talked frequently. Sometimes they talked football and sometimes they talked about life.
Bentley left Byrnes in 2007 to be the head coach at Presbyterian College, his alma mater. At Presbyterian, in the process of moving from Division II to the FCS level, Bentley found fewer resources than he had at Byrnes. He moved back to Byrnes in 2010 as athletic director and offensive coordinator, helping win two more state championships. He became head coach again last season.
Malzahn offered Bentley a job after he arrived at Auburn in December 2012, but the time wasn't right. Bentley's son, Shuler, was heading into senior season as Byrnes' starting quarterback. Malzahn called again last February, and this time Bentley was ready.
Bentley left Byrnes in February to become an offensive analyst on Malzahn's staff at Auburn.
"The thing I can relate it to is when you are a little boy, you get up on Saturday morning and build a fort," Bentley says. "You usually try to build a better one the next day. We've had some success at Byrnes. Always in the back of your mind, you wonder if you can coach at this level. My wife asked during the national championship game `Do you wish you'd done it?'
"When Gus offered me the chance to come again, I said why not try it and see where it goes?"
Even after Bentley declined the first offer, Malzahn knew he would go back and try again.
"I have a lot of respect for him," Malzahn says. "He was one of the better high school coaches in the country. We are glad he's with us. He'll be a very successful college coach."
"It's tough at times, but in another sense it's good to sit back and learn, especially when you have so many good coaches around you," Bentley says. "Dealing with Rhett and Tim, I've really got the best of both worlds to be able to watch and absorb as much as I can. They are good people.
"One of the things I asked was for God to stretch me. It's a stretch. I'm learning so much now just seeing the inner workings of everything so I'll be ready when it's time for me to do it."
There's no question that coaching on the college level is what Bentley wants to do, but he's in no hurry. His son Jacob will be a sophomore quarterback at Opelika High School in September.
In 22 seasons as a high school coach, Bentley developed a reputation as a developer of quarterbacks. His son Chas played quarterback at Rutgers. Shuler passed for a state record 71 touchdowns and more than 5,031 yards, completing 70 percent of his passes. Jacob, called Jake by his family, is next in line.
"It's time," Bentley says. "Football is timing. The entire game is based on timing. Offenses come and go, the option comes and goes, the spread. It's all about timing, and I think the timing is good for this."
Bentley and Malzahn believe in the same things and have run similar schemes. The success enjoyed by Malzahn, Baylor's Art Briles, Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris and others, Bentley says, has inspired high school coaches.
"It is an encouragement, but more than that, you just see that they are good people," Bentley says. "You see that they have something in common in that they are all hard workers. They've all kind of run the same system, too, so you feel good about your system. You think your system will work."
On the field, Bentley has seen a lot to like in Auburn's first six practices of the spring. It starts with quarterback Nick Marshall, who led the Tigers to a 12-2 record and the Southeastern Conference championship last season.
"I've enjoyed watching him and studying him," Bentley says. "He's impressive. He's improved from the start of spring. I think his second year he's going to blossom."
And then there's the running game, the nation's best last season. It's the component that makes Malzahn's version of the hurryup offense difference than most.
"Our offensive line coach (J.B. Grimes) is the best in the country, and I've been around," Bentley says. "The way he teaches it meshes well with what Coach Malzahn wants as far as being physical. We are a downhill running football team. Coach Grimes teaches it well."
Bentley knew when he was in the third grade that he wanted to be a football coach. He became head coach at Byrnes when he was 25. He's won championships and coached some of the South's top players, including running back Marcus Lattimore. He's still teaching, but in a different way.
"You help with players, building relationships off the field," Bentley says. "I'm helping Rhett and helping Tim. I'm doing all I can to make us a better football program."
Bentley's wife Paulette, along with Jacob and twins Brooks and Emily, will move to Auburn soon.
"It's a neat place," Bentley says. "I'm excited about my family coming down."
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: