Dec. 5, 2010
PETE THAMEL, New York Times News Service
Gus Malzahn, the coordinator of top-ranked Auburn's prolific offense, is not a joking kind of guy. That does not mean others will not have fun at his expense.
Herb Hand, Vanderbilt's offensive line coach, is one former co-worker who knows the bookish Malzahn well enough to tease him. When they worked together at Tulsa, Hand would tape pictures of the cartoon character Jimmy Neutron on Malzahn's office door, even drawing in Malzahn's glasses for effect, to poke his reputation as an offensive mastermind.
Other days, Hand, who knew Malzahn bristled when people stereotyped him as having a "gadget offense," would print pictures of the cartoon character Inspector Gadget.
Hand also has a close relationship with Oregon coach Chip Kelly, who would visit Hand's old employer West Virginia during spring practices in the Rich Rodriguez era. Kelly once flew through Tulsa on a trip from Florida to Eugene just to watch film with Hand for four hours. There was no meal or tour of the city, just heavy viewing of play-action series concepts. When Kelly discovered a new route-adjustment concept, he declared to Hand, "That right there is worth my trip."
When No. 1 Auburn plays No. 2 Oregon in the Bowl Championship Series title game on Jan. 10, the matchup will feature the presumed Heisman Trophy winner, Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, and the likely runner-up, Oregon tailback LaMichael James.
But the game may also portend the pace that football is played at the college level and beyond because of the star schemers on each sideline, Auburn's Malzahn and Oregon's Kelly. The oddsmaker Danny Sheridan set the over-under scoring total for the game at 75 points.
''I really think the two best offensive spread coaches in the country are going at it," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. "So it will be heck of a game. Might be 60-55, something like that."
Few know both Malzahn and Kelly better than Hand, who was Tulsa's co-offensive coordinator with Malzahn during 2007 and 2008 when they directed the nation's No. 1-ranked offense. Hand has known Kelly since 2003, when Kelly was the offensive coordinator at New Hampshire and would travel the country to pick the brains of offensive coordinators. Hand and Kelly first connected at West Virginia, where Kelly studied Rodriguez's spread offense.
''The thing Chip was really impressed with was the tempo stuff," Hand said.
Oregon's tempo, which is a major part of an offense that leads the nation with 49.3 points a game, has driven it to its first national title game. Lost somewhat amid Auburn's scandal-tinged season has been its stellar offense, which has averaged a Southeastern Conference-best 42.7 points a game, nearly a touchdown more than the next SEC team.
Oregon averages more than 79 plays, while Auburn plays a bit slower, managing 66.
Hand said an important aspect of the matchup is that neither team's defense will be thrown off by the tempo. He suggested the game could be lower scoring than projected. Hand said that when he coached at Tulsa with Malzahn, coach Todd Graham would insist that Tulsa was not a no-huddle team, it was a no-huddle program.
''Our secretaries operated at a no-huddle pace," Hand said.
That underscores a greater point of how the programs mirror each other.
''If there are two defenses prepared to play against the opposing offense, it would be those two," Hand said. "That's what they see in practice every day. I don't think Oregon's tempo will rattle Auburn or Auburn will be rattled by Oregon."
Neither Kelly nor Malzahn has a silver-spoon football pedigree. Malzahn, a walk-on at Arkansas, made his name as a high school coach in Arkansas, where he won three state titles. His offense was so successful that he wrote a book, "The Hurry-Up, No-Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy." There is also an instructional DVD of the same name.
He moved on to Arkansas with the prized quarterback recruit Mitch Mustain in 2006, and spent a year there as offensive coordinator before joining Hand at Tulsa. Malzahn has a reputation of being low key.
One day after Hand told a joke in a meeting, Malzahn said: "I don't really understand jokes. I don't get them."
Hand asked him if he didn't get that joke, and Malzahn responded: "No, I just don't get the whole concept of jokes. I don't even know why people tell them. What's the point?"
Malzahn did chuckle when a reporter told him Saturday night that Kelly had been complimentary of Auburn's offense this year, saying it was one of the few that ran at a comparable tempo to Oregon's.
''I think I've met him once," Malzahn said, mentioning the connection to Hand. "I've got a lot of respect for him. I love what he does with the tempo, it's a lot of fun to watch."
Kelly left his job as the offensive coordinator at New Hampshire for Oregon in 2007 and transformed quarterback Dennis Dixon from an enigmatic talent to a Heisman front-runner. Injury kept Dixon from New York that season, but Kelly's reputation as a big-time coach at the BCS level was solidified. When he became Oregon's coach last year, Kelly further enveloped the program in his spread philosophy, so much that the Ducks rotate 25 players on defense because of the inordinately high number of snaps.
Oregon has hit a peak this year, outscoring teams by 115-24 in the fourth quarter.
''He's a fantastic coach, and he's done a great job and has a great staff," the Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. "It'll be a great challenge."
And years from now, the game may be looked back on as an important part of speeding things up in college football and beyond.