Of those, only a handful are able to make that leap to the college ranks. Even fewer find themselves in high-profile positions. Then there are Gus Malzahn and Hugh Freeze. The two former prep coaches are the faces of two programs in the most competitive league in college football, the Southeastern Conference, with Malzahn in his first year at Auburn while Freeze is in Year 2 at Ole Miss.
No wonder the two friends are humbled by their present circumstances.
“I feel very blessed to be doing what I'm doing just for the fact that I was given the opportunity,” Malzahn said. “There's a lot of great high school coaches out there that could be very successful in college that just haven't had the opportunity. Me and Hugh have talked about that numerous times.”
Each knew who the other was during their prep coaching days in the mid-1990s and early-2000s, though their relationship at that point could best be described as mere acquaintances.
Malzahn was at Shiloh Christian and Springdale high schools in Arkansas during 1996-2005, while Freeze was at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis, Tenn., during 1995-2004. Then the two jumped into college coaching. Malzahn became the offensive coordinator at Arkansas in 2006 while Freeze had taken an assistant coaching job at Ole Miss.
And that’s when their friendship began to take flight.
“When we got into college at the same time, we'd touch base with each other on a weekly basis, compare notes and how things were going and just developed a relationship,” Malzahn said. "I consider him one of my better friends in the coaching profession.”
Malzahn said the possibility of coaching in college didn’t begin to cross his mind until late in his high school career.
For Freeze, it was an obsession from the start.
“I actually told my wife on our honeymoon that one day I was going to be a head coach of an SEC school,” he said. “That dream started to fade a bit after 13 years of high school coaching, but she was willing for me to take a chance and take an off-field role just to get my foot in the door.”
From that point, Freeze set a 10-year timeline for himself to take over an SEC program. But he said things “got sped up a bit” after he left Ole Miss to take the head coaching job at Lambuth University, an NAIA school in Jackson, Tenn. After compiling a 20-5 record in two seasons, Freeze returned to FBS to become the offensive coordinator at Arkansas State under Steve Roberts in 2010. Freeze ascended to the top spot after Roberts was let go following a 4-8 season.
One 10-win season and a Sun Belt Conference title later, and Freeze was back at Ole Miss as its new head coach in December 2011.
Freeze’s departure paved the way for Malzahn to step in as Arkansas State’s next head coach. Following his one-year stint as Arkansas’ offensive coordinator, Malzahn had the same title at Tulsa (2007-08) and Auburn (2009-11) before he finally got his shot as a collegiate head coach. Malzahn mirrored Freeze’s path, flipping his nine victories and a conference championship into the Auburn job, which came open after the Tigers went 3-9 in Gene Chizik’s last season.
Despite sharing the same conference — and the same division, no less — the chatter amongst the two is still frequent during the offseason. But when fall arrives? Forget it.
Winning football games takes precedence, after all.
“We've had a relationship for a long time without talking football, (sharing) ideas,” Malzahn said. “Last year, we did quite a bit. … We don't get very specific anymore when it comes to Xs and Os.”
Facing off against each other for the first time this Saturday, they have done their best to put the friendship aside. The pair traded texts last weekend and haven’t spoken since. That won’t change until the teams arrive at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Once the clock hits zero, however, they’ll take the blinders off.
“This is a big game for both of us and we both understand that,” Malzahn said. “After the game we’ll go back to normal.”
Regardless of Saturday’s result, the camaraderie will remain. That bond was cemented that long ago.