What accepting the UCF job says about Gus Malzahn
Two weeks ago, I caught up with former Auburn coach Gene Chizik to talk about Gus Malzahn. Chizik hired Malzahn to become Auburn’s offensive coordinator in 2009. Malzahn ultimately succeeded Chizik to become Auburn’s head coach in 2013. The two remained friends over the years even as Chizik, who never moved his family away from Auburn, transitioned into the media world with SEC Network.
So when Chizik saw reports that Malzahn was on the way out at Auburn, he was shocked because of the $21.45 million buyout. Once the initial shock wore off, Chizik told Malzahn that he’d get a great job next year, and that he’d have 3 or 4 to pick from after taking the year off and recalibrating.
Well, it took roughly 2 months for that great job to show up. And now, fittingly, the man behind the hurry-up, no-huddle offense is on to the next gig.
Malzahn decided that UCF was that great job. As in, the job great enough to not just sit back and collect his buyout money. The man set to receive the richest buyout for a head coach in FBS history didn’t coast on the $11 million that hit his bank account within 30 days of being fired at Auburn, nor did he relax knowing he had another $10.45 million on the way in the next 4 years without lifting a finger.
Nope. Malzahn did all the recalibrating he needed.
For context, Chizik’s comments about Malzahn’s next step came after the UCF job became open but before the Knights hired Terry Mohajir to replace Danny White as its athletic director. That’s significant. Mohajir and Malzahn worked together during the coach’s lone year at Arkansas State. Mohajir arrived at Arkansas State and watched Malzahn lead a 9-3 season, only to go back to Auburn after Chizik was fired.
According to ESPN, Malzahn emerged as UCF’s top target on Sunday. That was roughly 3 days after Mohajir was introduced as UCF athletic director. Malzahn, after seemingly spending the last 4 seasons on the hot seat at Auburn, had to feel wanted by UCF.
From Mohajir’s perspective, why wouldn’t he want Malzahn?
This was a major step for Mohajir, who left his alma mater for UCF. It shouldn’t have been much of a surprise that he wanted to go out and make a splashy hire. Malzahn qualifies as that. There’s no question he’ll be able to recruit in the state of Florida, where he recruited guys like Carlton Davis, Anthony Schwartz, Jamien Sherwood and other blue-chippers like Byron Cowart, Joey Gatewood and Nate Craig-Myers all left the Sunshine State for Malzahn’s program.
Go figure that Malzahn is far more proven than his UCF predecessor, Josh Heupel, who left UCF for Tennessee. For all of Malzahn’s shortcomings at Auburn — mainly failing to live up to the ridiculously high bar he set with a national runner-up season in Year 1 — he still has plenty working in his favor. He’s 77-38 as an FBS head coach with 5 Top-25 finishes and a pair of division titles in the toughest division in the sport.
Malzahn enters a situation at UCF with suddenly high expectations after a 4-year stretch in which the Knights posted a 41-8 mark. It was an attractive opening that surely didn’t lack candidates wanting to take on those expectations.
But those expectations still won’t be in the same ballpark as the ones Malzahn faced at Auburn, where he had Nick Saban to his left and Kirby Smart to his right. With all due respect to the AAC, which elevated its profile considerably in the last 5 years, Malzahn’s biggest annual hurdles are Cincinnati (as long as Luke Fickell is there) and Memphis. Oh, and I should probably mention that Tulsa, where Malzahn spent 2 years before taking the offensive coordinator position at Auburn, is coming off consecutive years with victories against UCF.
Still, though. Malzahn is no longer facing annual matchups with national championship coaches and rosters chock full of blue-chip recruits. In a way, he’ll get back to his roots. Sure, UCF is different than coaching Arkansas high school football. Last I checked, Arkansas high school football coaches weren’t making 7 figures.
But Malzahn was a better fit for UCF than a place like Tennessee, where he would’ve probably felt a familiar sense of angst among the fanbase and administration. At UCF, Malzahn can theoretically lose a game, search his name on social media and not have the word “buyout” show up. What a concept!
Clearly, Malzahn isn’t motivated by money at this stage of his life. He has more than enough of it thanks to how things played out at Auburn. His next opportunity was never going to be about that. It was always finding the right opportunity to succeed. All signs pointed to him fighting his boredom and continuing to play golf and do exactly what his buddy, Chizik, said he would do. You know, recalibrate.
After all, it’s mid-February. Usually, the coaching carousel isn’t spinning at this time of year. At the very least, it’s not spitting out quality jobs like UCF.
Malzahn instead scrapped his golf plans and recognized the opportunity. He’ll lead arguably the top rising Group of 5 program in America, which is located in a recruiting hotbed that he knows well. And now, he has a boss with whom he already has a rapport. There’s a decent chance Malzahn couldn’t have checked all those boxes anywhere else for the next 4 years.
That’s how long those scheduled buyout payments from Auburn are set to run. There wasn’t any offset language in the contract if Malzahn were to accept a new job, which means barring some sort of altered settlement, his historic buyout won’t be impacted by his new gig (Willie Taggart got roughly $4 million of his $18 million buyout at Florida State covered by FAU after accepting that job). There wasn’t going to be some Bret Bielema-like lawsuit over whether Malzahn made enough of an effort to find another job, either.
In other words, there were no financial motives for Malzahn to jump back into the ring. That $21.45 million was on its way no matter what. Because of that buyout, he was in a position different than any fired coach we’ve ever seen in the sport. Nobody would’ve faulted Malzahn for laying low and enjoying his time away from the fishbowl. All he’s done is coach football for the last 30 years.
He could’ve gone the media route like Chizik. He could’ve been an analyst at some high-profile program like Butch Jones. He could’ve even pursued acting like Les Miles.
Even with a buyout more than twice the size of those 3 former SEC head coaches, Malzahn took on a new challenge. It’s one he couldn’t have seen coming even just a few weeks ago. Timing is everything. Malzahn and Mohajir know that all too well.
Mohajir said in the team’s release announcing the move that “there has never been a better time for Coach Malzahn to lead this program than right now.”
Recalibration season is over. All aboard the Gus Bus to Orlando.