To David Gunn, Pine Bluff is still a special place.

To David Gunn, Pine Bluff is still a special place.

Shortly after graduation from Arkansas in 1987, he began his coaching career at Watson Chapel and his first of two stints at the high school. It’s where his journey to Arkansas State began.

“I learned a lot of football there,” he said. “My foundation of football came from my years at Watson Chapel.”

Fifteen years have passed since he last walked the Wildcats’ sidelines. Maybe no one then could have known then he’d be in charge of a 10-win college team — if only for one game.

“Since I was in the seventh grade, I dreamed of being a coach,” Gunn, 48, said Thursday in a phone interview. “The reality of it, I probably wouldn’t have written this script.”

But the way it unfolded, Gunn will coach Arkansas State in the Bowl against Northern Illinois on Jan. 8 in Mobile, Ala.

The game couldn’t come at a better time for a 10-2 team that won the Sun Belt Conference this season. It’ll be played on national television, on the eve of the BCS national championship.

Gunn was named interim coach Dec. 5, when Hugh Freeze stepped down as head coach to take the same position at Ole Miss. Arkansas State hired Gus Malzahn to succeed Freeze nine days later, and on Sunday, Malzahn announced he would retain Gunn for the 2012 season.

The 10 years that Gunn have spent as running backs coach at A-State have paid off for Gunn. He joined the Red Wolves after spending five years (1997-2001) in his only permanent head coaching stint at Little Rock McClellan. The year before he took over McClellan, he helped Watson Chapel win its only state football championship as a running backs and defensive backs coach.

“We (me and my family) have chosen to stay here,” Gunn said. “When you start something, you like to see it through. You won’t find a better place than Jonesboro.”

Gunn said the only thing that’s changed since becoming interim coach is overseeing the whole team, adding the Red Wolves are just working on “what we’ve done all year.” His backs have helped the Red Wolves average 164.8 rushing yards per game this season, and in each of their victories, they have not scored less than 26 points. Their quarterback, Ryan Aplin has paced the offense with 269.6 yards passing and a team-high 50.4 rushing per game.

Malzahn hasn’t had any hand in preparing A-State for the bowl game, Gunn said.

“He’s totally focused on Auburn winning their game,” he said. Malzahn will coach his last game as Auburn’s offensive coordinator in the Dec. 31 Chick-fil-A Bowl against Virginia in Atlanta.

Eight days later, Gunn will be on the national stage. And he hasn’t forgotten where the journey started.

“My frame of reference comes from my years at Watson Chapel,” he said.