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BUCKLE UP

By September 14, 2011No Comments

A wooden, Auburn University sign  pokes out of a potted plant by the front door of Gus and Kristi Malzahn’s home. Across from it sits a rock with the following scripture:
He is my only rock
And my salvation;
He is my defense;
I shall not be moved.
– Psalm 62:6
One is a reminder of volatility. “One week, you’re a genius. The next week, you’re an idiot,” says Gus, offensive coordinator for the Auburn Tigers.

The other is a statement of what never changes, the very cornerstone of every Malzahn home since 1988.

“She’s my accountability,” says Gus about his wife. “She’s always asking me, ‘What does the scripture say?’ She gives me a clear word from His word. We’re in this thing together.”

This “thing” has been quite the ride.

The Malzahns grew up together in Fort Smith, Ark., although three years separated them. Gus, home from college, was reintroduced to the high school senior, and Kristi followed her future husband to Henderson State University where they married a year later. Daughters Kylie, 22, and Kenzie, 19, soon followed.

“My mother said she knew from the start that Gus was the one for me. She knew he would be a strong leader, but she also knew how strong-willed I could be. She felt like Gus would be stronger, but also allow me to be me,” says Kristi.
The early years were tough on the young couple. “Gus started coaching right away although we found out he only got his first job because no one else wanted it,” laughs Kristi.

“I remember being so excited only to find out I was the only one who applied,” says Gus.

In spite of the rough start, Gus moved into other positions, including athletic director of Shiloh Christian High School and then Springdale High School. “I was gone away from my family then much more than I am now. I had to attend every sporting event as well as school functions,” says Gus.

Kristi says it was a hard time for the family. “I was so focused on my needs, what wasn’t being met for me. I was very resentful of his time away, and I was isolated with two young children. It wasn’t until I hit my knees and prayed for God to show me what my feelings were saying about me as opposed to whatever shortcomings I thought were Gus’s. When I did that, it was like a huge weight lifted off my shoulders,” says Kristi.

From 1992 to 2005, Malzahn led three football programs to impressive victories, earning an appearance in six state championship games and winning four titles. His quarterbacks set national records for passing touchdowns and total yards. Kristi and the girls rarely missed a game.

After short, but successful, jaunts at the University of Arkansas and University of Tulsa, Gus received the call from newly named Auburn University head football coach, Gene Chizik, in late 2008.

“We were completely unprepared, but knew it had to be a God thing,” says Kristi.

The move didn’t come without controversy. One blog comment stated, “I wonder if he can do anything with our (Auburn’s) QBs?”

By early 2011, Gus had answered the question having coached Heisman trophy winner, quarterback Cam Newton, accepted the Broyles Award for Assistant Coach of the Year and contributed to a national championship season. ESPN also selected Gus as one of the best recruiters in the Southeastern Conference.

“It’s hard to find balance during recruiting season,” says Gus. NCAA regulations forbid coaches from calling or even returning phone calls from recruits so Gus’s cell phone is never out of his hand in order to receive calls as they come in, a time through which Kristi grits her teeth.

“I have to remind him to at least offer a ‘give me a minute’ finger in the air,” says Kristi. “There have been times I’m in mid-sentence, and the next thing I know, he’s walking off with the cell phone on his ear.”

Kristi also encourages her husband to be more deliberate with compliments instead of always telling his players what they’re doing wrong. “I’m the softer side of Gus. I’ll have players call me, asking why Coach doesn’t like them or what they can do differently – even Cam (Newton) early on questioned why he couldn’t seem to please Gus. I didn’t tell Gus this for awhile, but little by little I’d remind him of ways to build up his players.”

Gus laughs. “I’m glad she didn’t tell me because I’d have told Cam right away to quit being so whiny.” He pauses in reflection, and then continues. “But she’s right. My job is to fix what’s wrong, and often times I’m so focused on that, I forget to let others know when they’re doing something right. I just assume if I don’t address it or tell them it’s wrong, then they know I’m happy with their performance. I’m working on that.”

Gus also tends to forget to warn Kristi of company, like when she learns through a passing comment at the athletic complex that the boys are coming over to watch the game. “The boys” meaning the freshmen class. As a surrogate mom to some 80 boys, Kristi never knows who might be dropping by and when.

While parenting hundreds of young men through the years, the Malzahns have raised two daughters who enjoy each other enough to live together while attending Auburn. “My daddy always told me, ‘You have the whole world to fight. You’re not going to fight your family.’ Our girls love each other and have such a heart for people,” says Kristi.

Gus has a slightly different take on the girls being away from home.

“I don’t like it,” says Gus.

The protective father admits to driving by the girls’ house a few times a day, even though it’s barely two miles from the Malzahn home. “Before I accepted the job from Gene, I sat all the girls down and said, ‘Either we all go, or none of us go.’ Whatever move we make next will most likely be the first one we’ll make without one or both of our girls. I hate it,” says Gus.
For now, the move does not include anywhere other than onto a new quarterback and offensive line for the Tigers. Gus signed a new contract with the University, giving him another season at Auburn, despite being wooed with head football coaching positions at other universities. Kristi is gearing up for her involvement with Gene and Jonna Chizik’s philanthropy, All in for You Turn, as well as participating in a community Bible study.

Protecting her family comes naturally to Kristi, but reservation had to be learned. “Things are very black and white to me. I am so vocal. I want to make people understand these are kids, and I know their hearts. And this is my husband, who has such a desire to help other people achieve their dreams. But sometimes, God reminds me I have to be still. A lot of days last year, I didn’t even leave home. I’d cut on the music. It was just me and the dogs,” says Kristi, referring to Jolie, Jax and Winston, a Maltese/Yorkie mix, Maltese and Shih Tzu, respectively.

Kristi also protected Gus from family worries during the National Championship game last January. Gus’s father was preparing to leave for the game, when he fell ill. “We knew it was bad, so I was monitoring his condition, ready to tell Gus if I needed to, but not wanting to worry him until I absolutely had to,” says Kristi. Immediately after the game, Chizik put the Malzahns on a plane to Texas.

“That’s the great part of Gene and Jonna, and working for a Christian athletic director (Jay Jacobs). There was no question asked. No hesitation. No indication I was needed anywhere else except to be with my family,” says Gus. His father died in February with Gus and Kristi present.

“You really learn to appreciate where you are in that moment. Whether we are in the trailer home of our 20s or sitting on the beach of Cabo, we know we are blessed,” says Kristi.

When asked what the Malzahns of today would say to the Malzahns 20 years ago, Gus grins. “Buckle up.”

Kristi concurs. “We’ve learned a lot along the way and are continuing to learn. Listen, we’re major mess ups. There is no explanation for where we are today. It’s only by the grace of God.”

Gus holds up a finger to indicate he needs a minute and steps out to take a call. Kristi rolls her eyes and laughs. “It’s been a wild ride.”

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