NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Gus Malzahn had taken over as Tulsa's offensive coordinator in 2007 when he sat down to have a long conversation with starting quarterback Paul Smith about a subject very dear to Malzahn.
Malzahn was so adamant that Smith abandon his Nike balls that Smith thought his new coach must have been getting royalties from some other football manufacturer.
"He was just very concerned I wasn't throwing the best ball possible," Smith said. "Really, that was Gus."
Seven years later, Malzahn's stern, laser-focused personality has made him the national coach of the year and architect of one of the biggest turnarounds in college football history. In one year at Auburn, he transformed a 3-9 (0-8 SEC) program into a No. 2 ranking and matchup against No. 1 Florida State in tonight's BCS title game.
"It's a tremendous coaching job," FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said.
At the heart of Malzahn's success is an extreme attention to detail and a cutting-edge offense.
In eight years as a college offensive coordinator or head coach, Malzahn's offenses have finished outside the top 30 in Division I-A only once. He has orchestrated two top-10 passing offenses and four that finished among the top 10 in rushing. "He's a genius at what he does," Auburn center Reese Dismukes said.
But Dismukes said Malzahn's system isn't as complex as people think. The Tigers use old-school wing-T concepts in trendy spread formations, and they run plays at breakneck speed.
The schemes aren't much different from what Rhett Lashlee ran under Malzahn at Shiloh (Ark.) Christian, when Lashlee threw for 13,000 yards — which still ranks seventh nationally among high school quarterbacks.
"The core foundation of it hasn't (changed)," said Lashlee, now Auburn's offensive coordinator. "We want to go fast."
Although Malzahn's philosophy is consistent, he adapts to his personnel.
As Arkansas' offensive coordinator in 2006, he inherited a backfield with two future first-round picks — Darren McFadden and Felix Jones — so he started a trend by lining McFadden up as a wildcat quarterback.
Over the next two years at Tulsa, Malzahn aired the ball out with two skilled passers. Smith and David Johnson combined for 9,180 passing yards, and the Golden Hurricane had the No. 1 offense in I-A both seasons.
His 2010 offense found balance with Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton and gave Auburn its third national title in 53 years. This season's team boasts the No. 1 rushing attack in I-A with the SEC's highest average (335.7 yards per game) in three decades.
"I think so many times in our game, you may see people that try to make a square peg fit in a round hole," Lashlee said. "We just try to take the opposite approach."
Malzahn's biggest achievement this season comes more from the Tigers' personalities than plays.
After a year as Arkansas State's head coach, Malzahn returned to Auburn in December 2012 to find a talented but beaten-down roster. He promised his players a fresh start and banned his staff from even watching film from 2012.
"Auburn is known for that blue-collar, hard-nosed, hit-you-in-the-mouth mentality," Malzahn said.
"We had to get that back."
Players were desperate to avoid another last-place finish in the SEC West, and they bought into Malzahn's no-nonsense personality and new system.
Their offense jumped from the eighth worst in I-A to 11th best, and the nine-game turnaround is tied for the largest in I-A history.
"Coach Malzahn made it very simple," defensive back Robenson Therezie said. "Find a way to win."