AUBURN — Before they were the faces of college football’s most heated philosophical feud, Gus Malzahn and Bret Bielema went by the same title to Mark Markuson: boss.
Markuson served as offensive line coach at Arkansas when Malzahn was offensive coordinator in 2006 and was in the same position under Bielema at Wisconsin in 2012, though he was fired just two games into the season.
In the entangled web of college coaching circles, Markuson is the only man who can say he served on staffs with both Malzahn and Bielema, who are set to square off for the second time as head coaches at Auburn and Arkansas at 3 p.m. Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Markuson has a unique perspective on Malzahn and Bielema and their opposing offensive philosophies, the Hurry-Up, No-Huddle and “Normal American Football,” which have been at the center of an ideological war of words, and play on the field, since they were both hired on Dec. 4, 2012.
“Philosophically those two guys have been kind of at each other,” Markuson said. “Bret’s a very hard-nosed guy. He believes in the old school way of ‘American football.’ In meaning with that, the traditional I formation, two tight ends, big people, good backs, run it downhill at somebody and then play-action pass.”
Though their formations vary and the tempo they play at is at complete opposite ends of the spectrum, Markuson says Malzahn and Bielema “run the same plays” in the running game.
“Arkansas is going to run the inside zone, well Gus is going to run the inside zone,” Markuson said. “One’s going to be underneath the center, one’s in the shotgun. It’s still the same play, although Auburn’s going to play real fast and Arkansas is going to line up and come out of the huddle.”
From 1998-2007, Markuson worked at Arkansas under then-coach Houston Nutt, including Malzahn’s first year in the college coaching ranks in 2006. Like other members of the staff, Markuson had to adjust from an I formation offense to Malzahn’s up-tempo style.
“You got to be willing as another coach on the inside to accept change and learn from other guys, and at times that’s difficult for coaches that have already been in place,” Markuson said. “I know it was for me a little bit, I’m just being honest, it wasn’t an easy transition. … That was difficult because we were line it up, huddle up, we’re going to run the I offense, we’re going to hand it off to these backs, we’re going to play-action pass. It was new and it was hard to accept, I’m going to be honest.”
Arkansas went 10-4, including 7-1 in the SEC, and lost to Florida in the SEC Championship game before falling, ironically, to Bielema and Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl. Malzahn left for Tulsa shortly after the season was over, but his up-tempo style and football mind impressed the traditional Markuson.
“Gus’ mind is always buzzing with that football stuff,” he said. “The thing about him he’s not afraid to call it. If he works on it, he’s going to call it. Some coaches can talk a good game with that, as far as working on it, but then you’ve got it in your game plan and they’re afraid to call it. He’ll let it loose and he’ll call it. That’s what makes it fun for the kids too.”
While Malzahn spent 2007-08 at Tulsa, and 2009-11 at Auburn, Markuson followed Nutt to Ole Miss, where he coached Michael Oher among others, before heading to Wisconsin to work for Bielema in 2012.
The union of the 14-year SEC veteran and Bielema lasted just over eight months as Bielema made the highly-unusual move of firing Markuson just one day after the Badgers lost to Oregon State 10-7 two weeks into the season.
“I’m never going to delay a decision that I think will help us win football games,” Bielema said on Sept. 10, 2012, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. “I’ve seen a lot of coaches make those decisions at the end of the year, and they probably knew it sooner than I did. They just don’t want to cause a wave. And I’m not scared of high waves.”
Markuson, who spent 2012 at Northeast Mississippi Community College and is now at Eastern Illinois, didn’t want to get into what went wrong during his tenure in Madison.
“I know that obviously he got rid of me for a reason,” he said. “We weren’t on the same page with some things “
Bielema went 68-24 at Wisconsin and led the Badgers to three straight Rose Bowl appearances, but his staff constantly had turnover, which was one of the reasons he left for Arkansas, but after last year’s 3-9 season, three of Bielema’s defensive assistants changed.
By contrast, as Malzahn enters his third season as a head coach, he experienced no changes to his full-time assistants, all of whom received raises in the off-season, from a year ago and brought 13 members of his Arkansas State with him to Auburn.
Malzahn said his “mind never even goes there,” in regard to changes to his staff if things were to ever go awry.
Markuson didn’t see Malzahn’s meteoric rise in the coaching ranks coming, but he’s glad to have been a part of it.
“I learned a lot from him and I would tell him that to his face today,” Markuson said. “I really don’t talk to him but some of the things that we talked about in staff meetings and how he went about his business, I can see it in what he’s doing today.”