A football coach isn't trained to look too far down the road.
He earns most of his pay to make decisions in the now, to successfully adjust schemes in the span of minutes and get his players locked into the present moment with laser-like intensity. The best coaches develop the ability to think one step ahead of the game on the field. All the recruiting, fish fry glad-handing and long film sessions serve only one purpose - 60 minutes, played 12 or 13 Saturdays a year.
So, it's not surprising that Malzahn was operating very much in the present tense as the guest speaker at the Little Rock Touchdown Club on Monday. In his case, that means toeing the party line as head coach of the nascent Arkansas State Red Wolves program. In his first season, Malzahn has continued to stoke statewide interest in the program that's now vying for its second consecutive conference title.
He stoked fires of a different sort at the Monday luncheon.
Without prompting, Malzahn launched into the state's most enduring hot-button sports issue - the ASU vs. UA debate. UA's unofficial policy has prevented the program from scheduling in-state competition since 1946. But that hasn't stopped what many Hog fans perceive as other such programs from showing up at the UA's doorstep, hat in hand, beseeching the master of the home for a few gold coins in the form of a guarantee game.
Malzahn reminded us ASU is the latest program to make such a request.
"We've reached out to the University of Arkansas. We'd like to play them in Little Rock in the future, and we think that would be good for the state."
He later added:
"I think it's the day and time that Arkansas State and Arkansas needs [sic] to play to play in Little Rock... It's not 1970 anymore. It really isn't. I think it's healthy for everybody concerned."
I definitely get where Malzahn's coming from. When you're the challenger, you want to debate the incumbent - even if the incumbent has been in office for 60 years and is so far ahead in the polls it hasn’t made sense to even risk a debate. And while Arkansas State definitely has more to gain in such a game than Arkansas, I do believe an elite Arkansas team would benefit from playing a Top 25ish ASU team as well.
No need to wade too deep into those waters now, though.
This is about Malzahn, and what his aggressive stance portends for the coaching future of the one-time Arkansas offensive coordinator. As anybody following the Razorbacks' head coaching search knows, Malzahn has become a perpetual potential candidate for the job. He's a native, knows just about every high school coach around and has led prolific offenses wherever he goes.
"He'll always be mentioned as a candidate for the Razorbacks until he either retires, career goes South, or actually becomes the head coach," writes Arkansas Expats' Doc Harper. "He's still a divisive figure in the state and it's hard to see him at the top of Long's list, but he could be on it toward the bottom."
Yet if Malzahn was actually in the running for a job which likely be filled in the next couple weeks, if he'd actually been contacted by Long and thought he had a shot at landing the gig, would he have called out the UA for upholding a long-standing policy many of its fans support?
Nope: It wouldn't be worth the headache of backtracking come December.
So, we can safely assume Malzahn's out of the running for the job this time around. However, that doesn't mean four, six, even eight years from now, he'll resurface if things don't go sterling with Jeff Long's choice. By that point, Malzahn could have made himself a more attractive candidate, whether by turning ASU into a perpetual Top 25 program or, perhaps, leading Auburn back to national prominence.
If Malzahn thought of himself as a top candidate for the UA down the line, would he make these comments now? Perhaps not.
Or perhaps he sees writing on the wall that some Hog fans and boosters don't see. He constantly harps on how college football is a "business," and has likely spoken on this subject with ASU alum/superfan Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe. If anybody has a bead on what the state's movers and shakers think about Arkansas playing in-state competition, it would be someone like Beebe. And Beebe may be hearing that there's simply too much money left on the table every time Arkansas schedules Troy instead of Arkansas State. Not just in terms of selling out Reynolds Razorback Stadium (and charging for special televised watching areas around the stadium), but in selling an array of merchandise relevant to the event.
Arkansas has already shown it's more than willing to dispense with tradition for the sake of profit, even if it causes many fans pain. Anybody who saw the all-white uniforms Arkansas wore against Rutgers this season can attest to this.
I don't expect Arkansas to schedule ASU, UAPB or UCA soon. But as the potential revenue from such match-ups escalate, expect more and more Arkansans to argue the UA should part ways with Barnhill's longstanding policy.
And if it does, Malzahn's won't have to worry about his words coming back to bite him.
He can just focus on his forte, the game at hand.