JONESBORO — Selling a quarterback on Arkansas State University, the five large framed pictures in the small alcove of Gus Malzahn’s office can close the deal.
Before a recruit is guided to them, a heavier-than-expected small replica of the crystal championship trophy and a see-through square with oversized rings — two from the BCS game and one from the SEC championship — are in plain view to impress.
“I’m not a ring guy, but I wear the big one when I recruit,” Malzahn said.
The quarterback wall of fame comes with a variety of selling points about the Malzahn offense.
From left to right, there is Mitch Mustain and Paul Smith. The former was 8-0 as a freshman starter in the Southeastern Conference, Malzahn points out, and the latter had 14 consecutive 300-yard passing games at Tulsa. In the middle is Dave Johnson, who threw 41 passes in his first three years at Tulsa and was to back up a junior college transfer in 2008. Instead, Johnson completed 258-of-400 for more than 4,000 yards, an impressive testament to the system.
Lower left is Chris Todd, who had five touchdown passes and six interceptions at Auburn in 2008. The next year, with Malzahn as offensive coordinator, Todd’s numbers were 22 and six.
Lower right is the coup de grace, Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton.
Each of the five played only one year in college in Malzahn’s system and he can only muse about what might happen with a two- or three-year starter.
The straight-on view of the wall is with your back to a small cubbyhole with a sport coat, tie, slacks, shirt, and coaching attire, all in ASU colors.
After one year on the Arkansas staff, two at Tulsa, and three at Auburn, he is well prepared for the question asked most often by recruits. How long will he be at ASU, they want to know.
“I want to see this thing through,” he tells them. “They understand that no head coach can really make a promise, ‘I will be here six years,’ but I will tell you there is more stability with us than probably anywhere else in the country as far as having a chance to be somewhere long term.”
Other schools plant the seed about his future. Just part of the recruiting landscape, he says.
“We’ve got big goals and big dreams and I want these top players to come on board with us and have a chance to do something special,” Malzahn said, gazing out his office window in the South end zone. From there, he can see the length of the football field and metal bleachers that accommodate 3,312. Soon, they will be replaced by a $22 million facility that will include an indoor practice facility and the appropriate football trappings.
Initial discussions about the project began Feb. 2, the day after Malzahn’s first recruiting class was ranked No. 1 in the Sun Belt Conference.
“You get to recruit specifically to what you envision your offense being and that’s pretty neat,” he said. “A lot of people just recruit positions. That gives us a great advantage because we tell kids exactly where they’re going to play. That’s what they want to know.”
Any conversation about recruiting winds around to his roots in Arkansas high school football, his plan to cultivate those connections, and his attempt to change the in-state perception of ASU. “When I was in Fort Smith and northwest Arkansas, it was like Jonesboro and Arkansas State were in another state, almost like they are disconnected,” he said. “So, that was one of the challenges, we had to get the state back connected.”
Thinking about his words and ASU’s grand plan, a wooden plaque on his wall is particularly apropos. Given to Malzahn by his wife, the quote from Proverbs says, “Where there is no VISION the people perish.”
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.