So far? Former Auburn coach Gus Malzahn is crushing it at UCF
From the moment he took the podium in February, it’s been pretty obvious.
There’s a new Gus Malzahn in Orlando.
It’s not like the one we saw at Auburn a couple of years ago. Like, the New Gus who took play-calling duties back, started a true freshman at quarterback and proceeded to dead lift 500 pounds in his free time (slight exaggeration on the last one).
This version of Malzahn — the Orlando version — is all about the future. It’s not about living in the mistakes of the past. It’s about taking UCF into the new age of college football. That’s the marketing pitch, and dare I say, it’s a smart one. Instead of looking like a coach on his heels and talking about how drastic the pending Name, Image and Likeness legislation changes will impact the sport, Malzahn is embracing them.
In case you missed it over the weekend, Malzahn’s team showed up with jerseys that had — wait for it — their Twitter handles on the back of their jerseys:
of college football . pic.twitter.com/QMOcKYwt9k
— UCF Football (@UCF_Football) April 10, 2021
Before some middle-aged man tells me that “kids are all about themselves these days” and that “Nick Saban would never do this,” well, stop yelling at that cloud and listen.
Malzahn isn’t recruiting middle-aged adults. He’s recruiting kids. UCF’s football future isn’t determined by whether middle-aged adults like him. It’s catering to recruits, and it’s capitalizing on UCF’s much younger audience.
“This is the new age of personal branding,” Malzahn told reporters after UCF’s spring game on Saturday. “We’re going to embrace it within the NCAA rules. That’s who we are and that’s who we’re going to be. You look at 322,000 living alumni and the average age is 36, 72,000 (students) and they’re all on Twitter. Some of these big schools, the average age of their alumni is 65 and they’re all on Facebook. We’ve got a big advantage there, OK. My mom’s on Facebook, you know, she checked it last night, matter of fact.”
I mean, the guy isn’t wrong. That’s a smart approach.
If UCF is going to ever rise above its Group of 5 recruiting limitations — its last top-50 class was in 2010 — it has to adapt. Malzahn has to adapt. Needless to say, he has so far.
UCF might be known to the casual college football fan as the program that claimed a national championship for its undefeated 2017 season, but how it’s known to the future generation of recruits can be much different than that, especially if it continues to lean into this head-on approach with the upcoming NIL changes.
“The future of college football is here” is a bold marketing pitch. It’s especially bold when it’s put up on a billboard in Gainesville.
Billboard spotted in Gainesville. (h/t /r/floridagators) pic.twitter.com/I81YD5MhiK
— RedditCFB (@RedditCFB) April 6, 2021
Shots fired across the bow? Absolutely.
Florida fans can scoff at that all they want. What matters is that we’re not talking about that billboard if it’s in Apopka or Lake Mary. Yes, even the neutral observer can respond to that by saying, “well, that’s the closest UCF will get to Gainesville.”
Past UCF? Yeah, they weren’t down for the 2-for-1 matchups. This UCF? Or rather, Malzahn’s UCF? I wouldn’t say that.
“I know we definitely want to play Florida in the future, and I expect Dan (Mullen) probably wants to play us, too,” Malzahn told ESPN. “Before I leave out of here, I want to play them all.”
By “all,” Malzahn means Florida, Miami and Florida State. What Malzahn and athletic director Terry Mohajir can’t do now is reject the 2-for-1 deals. From the sound of it, they’ll be on board for that.
The plan for Malzahn and the new regime is not to walk into the room and act like a traditional power; it’s to embrace that it has the freedom to do something totally different in order to be included in that group.
Is that easier said than done? For sure. But what we always say about the perennial Power 5 cellar dwellers like Kansas or Vanderbilt? If you have a ceiling, you have to be willing to do something totally different.
UCF, as long as it doesn’t have the annual revenue of Power 5 programs, has a ceiling. The Knights aren’t Auburn, which paid Malzahn $21.45 million not to work. Malzahn agreed to the same annual salary that Josh Heupel made ($2.3 million). More important to UCF is how it spends its money and resources.
So far, Malzahn looks like a wise investment to maximize those things.
It was a good sign that it basically took him a day to hire his defensive coordinator. Malzahn left his UCF introductory press conference and got to work by landing Miami linebackers coach Travis Williams, who was on Auburn’s staff from 2014-20. It took just 9 days for Malzahn to hire his entire staff. And for what it’s worth, that was in February when the coaching carousel wasn’t exactly spinning at warp speed with coaches looking to make a move.
What’s becoming abundantly clear is that those 2 months that Malzahn had away from football responsibilities were well spent. He didn’t come to Orlando with the same approach he had at Auburn. The UCF job is much, much different. Yeah, he has to sell it in a different way. And yeah, the sell changes once actual games are being played.
The headlines will shift from billboards to play-calling. Nobody knows the “scoreboard dictates everything” mantra better than Malzahn after 8 seasons on The Plains. There will be a time and a place for that.
For now, though, Malzahn doesn’t look like he’s slowing down anytime soon. It’s been 2 months since Malzahn stepped up to the UCF podium not like a guy who pocketed an 8-figure buyout with a deep tan from an extended golfing trip, but rather like he was shot out of a cannon. That afternoon, he said UCF is “getting the best Gus Malzahn coach of any time in my career.”
Say what you want about his past. If these first 2 months in Orlando are any indication, Malzahn’s future is bright.