Gus Malzahn relishes chance to start over as a ball coach while helping UCF raise its national profile

Written by on August 23, 2021

Gus Malzahn seems like a new man in a not-so-old program. That’s another way of saying UCF’s 55-year-old coach has remade himself, suddenly becoming hotter than the newest ride at Disney World.

“You went through something pretty traumatic,” UCF athletic director Terry Mohajir told his new coach earlier this year. “Are you ready to get back in? Are you OK?”

Malzahn replied: “You better believe it, man.”

The trauma of being fired at Auburn — the first time in his career that’s happened — has faded. You don’t see it often, an established Power Five coach dropping down to the Group of Five level. Upon his firing in December, Malzahn could have sat out, done some TV, visited camps and sat on a pile of buyout eight-figure buyout cash.

Except Gus is a ball coach.

Reuniting with his old boss at Arkansas State was too good to pass up. Taking over a loaded program also helped. Gus has an established quarterback (Dillon Gabriel), a staff filled with excellence (three assistants have been on programs that at least played for a national championship) and a handful of Auburn transfers, including defensive lineman Big Kat Bryant

Recent developments have conspired to make Gus-to-UCF even bigger than at first glance. In these strange days of realignment, UCF has been quietly aggressive. It has called the Power Five inquiring about entry. It has produced a flashy 64-page virtual presentation. The message: Let us in.

These things are almost expected of the program located 50 miles from the Atlantic Ocean and light years from the Power Five. It will try anything and everything to play in the big time.

Enter Malzahn, who joins the Knights at a perfect time. There are no signs of their success letting up. Prior to him, George O’Leary, Scott Frost and Josh Heupel have combined to win 68 games playing in three BCS/New Year’s Six bowls (winning two) over the last eight seasons.

In that same time, Malzahn has won the same number of games (68) at Auburn with three wins over Alabama, a national championship berth, two SEC West titles and an SEC championship.

The Malzahn era begins Sept. 2 with an all-or-nothing game against Boise State. It highlights an intertwined relationship. Malzahn became a first-time head coach in 2012 at Arkansas State. He was replaced by Bryan Harsin, who replaced him this year at Auburn. Harsin came from Boise State for his first Power Five job.

Got all that?

Auburn critics will point to the program’s lack of quarterback development in recent years. That may be true. But fresh starts are fresh starts.

In Orlando, there’s no Alabama. In Orlando, there’s a built-in, accomplished quarterback (Gabriel, the nation’s passing yards leader in 2020). In Orlando, there are no helicopter boosters buzzing over his shoulder.

It’s just ball, man.

“We’re trying to change the narrative to recruits we’re not one of the better non-Power Five programs,” Malzahn said. “We’re going to be one of the better programs in all of college football.”

Eight weeks after being fired at Auburn, Malzahn saddled up again for what promises to be the ride of his life. That’s saying something for a coach who has the seventh-best active winning percentage (at least 100 career games). It feels a lot like 2006 when Malzahn was picked out of the Arkansas high school ranks to begin his college career with the Razorbacks.

It feels like starting over.

College Football Playoff expansion has largely left out the discussion of the UCF possibilities. As proposed, the 12-team playoff would include the top six conference champions. That all but assures the American champion a playoff spot. Don’t forget the conference’s champion has earned a New Year’s Six berth in five of the first even years of the CFP. UCF in 2018 and Cincinnati in 2020 — both ranked No. 8 at the end — would theoretically have been in a 12-team playoff.

“That changed everything for us,” Malzahn said of expansion talks. “When I initially got here, I immediately started thinking, ‘How do we get in the four-team playoff?’ It’s been proven you can go undefeated here. … Now, it’s [11] teams, it’s set up really good for us.”

The season cannot start without proper introduction of the new Gus. This one isn’t muted by overarching forces at Auburn. This one isn’t flip flopping over play calling.

“That’s what I love to do,” Malzahn said. “That’s really what got me to where I am today. I’ll do that the rest of my career. There’s no more of that back-and-forth stuff.”

Malzahn has come out of his shell, the one that kept him in the stoic SEC coach mold. No more.

The words came out of his mouth: “This is a future of college football.” So the UCF administration erected a series of billboards around the state, including Gainesville, the home of the Florida Gators.

This isn’t trolling, this a five-star challenge. Former UCF AD Danny White chided Florida for not playing his program in a home-and-home; he refused efforts made by the Gators to create a commonplace 2-for-1 series with the Knights. Mohajir jumped on the opportunity this offseason. Florida and UCF will play three time starting in 2024.

“It was really me thinking this could be the program of the future,” Malzahn said. “I think I got hired at 9 p.m. Sunday night in Auburn, Alabama. I did a presser [in Orlando] at noon Eastern. I didn’t have a whole lot of time to really prep. It just really kind of came out. This is one of the programs of the future.

“I think everything is set up. Foundation has been set.” 


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