It is an oversimplification to say Mitch Mustain was Gus Malzahn’s ticket to the Big Time, but the facts are these …
They met when Mustain was in junior high and went 35-1 together at Springdale High School in Arkansas. In 2005, Mustain was the No. 1 high school quarterback in the United States, and Gus Malzahn was his coach.
Together, and with four other highly sought-after players, they flawlessly operated a fast-paced spread offense that seemed to make everyone happy. Mustain had grown up a Razorbacks fan but was getting recruited to play quarterback at places like Notre Dame, Alabama, Tennessee and everywhere else.
All things being equal, Mustain said recently in an interview with FOXSports.com he would not have signed with Arkansas.
“Probably not,” he said. “Most likely not.”
But all things were not equal.
Arkansas coach Houston Nutt hired Malzahn to coordinate the offense, and so the Springdale Five, as they came to be known, became Razorbacks and OHHHH SUCK IT BAMA! Nutt had pulled it off! What a coup!
Well, Mustain and Malzahn were both gone after one season; Nutt resigned after winning the SEC West in 2007.
Seven years after Malzahn and the Springdale Five arrived in Fayetteville, Malzahn and Tennessee Titans receiver Damian Williams are the only football survivors.
Nutt turned up at Ole Miss but was fired after losing 12 straight conference games and hasn’t coached anywhere since 2011. Bartley Webb, Ben Cleveland and Andrew Norman are all done playing. Mustain is still pursuing a playing career, having signed with the Arena League San Jose SaberCats in January, but he says he hasn’t had contact with an NFL team since his pro day at USC, where he finished his career in 2010. He also had a run with the Chicago White Sox in their minor league system.
And yet here is Malzahn, head coach at Auburn, where he won a national championship as offensive coordinator in 2010 and now has the Tigers 10-1 and ranked No. 4 in the BCS standings.
“It’s not really a surprise,” Mustain said. “It’s kinda what he’s done wherever he’s been. He’s proven he knows what he’s doing and his offense does work.”
Anyone familiar with what happened at Arkansas knows those are not empty platitudes coming from Mustain. AL.com did an extensive feature on what it called ”The Lost Year.”
There is a good bit of internal politics, inside-football stuff and complex personnel decisions, but the long and short of it is that Malzahn and Mustain went to Arkansas with assurances Nutt was going to let Malzahn run his offense same as he always had.
“I’m going to let Gus go,” Nutt said at SEC media day. “I’m going to turn him loose.”
Once they got started, though, Nutt pulled back on a full transition to Malzahn’s scheme in favor of a blend of old and new. The season began with a blowout loss to USC, but there was a bright spot. In the fourth quarter, Mustain and Williams entered the game and led a touchdown drive that looked like the future.
Mustain was named the starting quarterback the next week, and Arkansas won 10 games in a row. Trouble was, Nutt and Malzahn came from different schools of thought. It bothered Nutt that Arkansas was always behind on time of possession, and he didn’t like the idea of running a full spread offense when he had running backs Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis on the roster.
"I thought Gus did a good job gradually introducing some hurry, hurry, some no-huddle," Nutt told AL.com. "But we just couldn’t live on it. What we tried to do is have a happy medium between both and that’s what disappointed the freshmen."
So things were going great, except that they were going terribly.
“We were very unhappy and certainly didn’t trust Houston and what he was doing,” Mustain said. “I think a lot of us were looking for any reason to go to Arkansas. We wanted to play there. We grew up fans of them. … But there were issues that kept us from doing that, kept us looking elsewhere and trying to find something else. Gus was really that assurance we were looking for. We just wanted something we felt confident in.”
Mustain says he has never spoken at length to Malzahn about what happened within the coaching staff. There wasn’t much to say, he figured, since it was out of their hands.
“He didn’t expect that and perhaps felt a little bit bad about not being able to control the situation as much as he hoped and he though he could,” Mustain said.
Malzahn was the offensive coordinator at Tulsa the next season, and Mustain was the backup quarterback at USC.
He says the two kept in touch over the years, while Malzahn was leading top-ranked offenses at Tulsa and coordinating a Cam Newton-led Auburn offense to the national title. After a year at Arkansas State, where he won a Sun Belt title, Malzahn returned to Auburn to replace Gene Chizik and– miraculously — bring Auburn back into the national title hunt.
Watching from across the country, Mustain is not surprised.
“Six or seven years ago when this all started,” Mustain said, “I didn’t have any doubt he’d do well.”