Can Gus Malzahn's hire drive UCF into the Power Five?

·6 min read

To the coaches who’ve gone against Gus Malzahn for more than a decade during his time calling plays in the SEC, a sense of tactical arrogance always permeated from his best teams.

When Gus Malzahn first coached and coordinated at Auburn, he was going to do things the way he knew how — the tempo cranked, the tendencies be damned and that predictability empowered like battering ram as opposed to a liability. You knew Gus Malzahn would only run counter to one direction and power to another. Good luck stopping it. You knew he’d run the same buck sweep with the pin and pull. Have fun coaching up antidotes to it in practice all week.

So that’s why any skepticism about Gus Malzahn’s ability to adapt to his new job as the coach at UCF, a job long percolating with potential, should be greeted with a hearty chuckle. He's taken a job where a majority of the league — perhaps everybody but Cincinnati — has to brace themselves for Malzahn entering games with a talent advantage.

“They are going to have better players 90-something percent of the time,” said a veteran SEC assistant who is familiar with Malzahn. “I think he operated much better when he was the play caller. Part of the thing that made them good was that he didn’t stray. This is what we do. This is how we do it. The years they had good personnel, they were hard to stop.”

That sums up why Malzahn’s hire is a savvy one by new athletic director Terry Mohajir. Gus Malzahn is going to always have good personnel at UCF. Malzahn certainly read the talking points at his news conference on Monday, as he delivered the predictable chum for fans by declaring UCF will be “in the Final Four in a short period of time.”

But cut through the pep rally, and the real value of Malzahn to UCF is that he has a great chance to continue the football program and athletic department’s trajectory into a new paradigm. And that’s Malzahn bringing consistency and credibility in helping position the school for the next round of conference realignment.

Gus Malzahn looks on during an Auburn game against Minnesota on Jan. 1, 2020. (Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Gus Malzahn looks on during an Auburn game against Minnesota on Jan. 1, 2020. (Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

While UCF’s two undefeated regular seasons are often celebrated, it's also had a winless season and another losing season in the past six years. Malzahn brings the sophistication running a program, recruiting contacts and staff hiring experience to provide a steady ship. Think about what Gary Patterson did for TCU and what Kyle Whittingham did for Utah in elevating their entire universities to the next level. That’s where the Gus Bus should be able to take them in the next decade, as any coach crafty enough to beat Nick Saban three times will be able to exploit something he didn’t have at his last stop — one of the best jobs in his league.

Patterson and Whittingham brought their programs to a place where annual bowls were a given, double-digit wins were the expectation and the occasional moonlight in the top 10 happened frequently enough where it wasn’t shocking.

In UCF’s case, the bonus is that Malzahn’s brand name will magnify any of the success. “I don’t care if you are in Sacramento, California, or Syracuse, New York, you know who Gus Malzahn is,” Mohajir said of Malzahn. “You can’t say that about every candidate I interviewed.”

And the best news for UCF fans is that they appear to be getting a better version of Malzahn. He spoke as passionately and emotionally as at any point during his Auburn tenure, the heartbeat of the old high school coach bursting through a public figure who’d often appeared publicly more as a reluctant tin man. There was energy, there was passion and a bit of the maverick’s soul that UCF has prided itself on. (That included going through lengths to not say the word Auburn.)

Sometimes a new audience helps, so the stories of postgame Waffle House trips, chewing through 40 pieces of gum when his offense is in rhythm and his high-flying high school coaching days in Arkansas land different.

Perhaps the most important thing Malzahn said on Monday is that he’s going to continue to call plays. He answered the question faster than his offense moves after a first down, the conviction a result of an eight-week break where he did a deep self-analysis. “Definitely I’m going to call plays,” Malzahn said. “I’m going to call plays the rest of my career. That’s what I’m good at. That’s what got me here.”

Malzahn called plays as coordinator on Auburn’s national title team in 2010 and through his first four seasons as head coach, including when Auburn was 13 seconds from the national title in 2013. Malzahn didn’t call plays in 2017 and 2018 when Chip Lindsey coordinated and Malzahn famously “retired” his clipboard. But Malzahn took the play calling back over in 2019 before turning over to Chad Morris last season when he got fired after a 6-4 regular season.

The results through that time were uneven. That flip-flopping led to a loss of identity, as one coach pointed out.

“When they struggled this year, I was convinced we were going to see more of his offense because they were struggling,” said the opposing assistant coach. “But we didn’t see it. You could tell it was discombobulated.”

So what happened to Malzahn at the end? Two opposing assistants pointed to a precipitous drop in offensive line play that cost Auburn its run-first identity. Combine that with the lack of a quarterback who had the zone-read dynamism of Cam Newton or Nick Marshall, and Auburn could never re-establish that defiant Malzahn flair.

Malzahn didn’t dive into too many specific details about his two months of reflection after getting fired. But his tenor and enthusiasm for play calling indicate that he’s going to bet big on what has worked. Bet big on himself.

At UCF, the talent structure of the American Athletic Conference would indicate that it’s going to work just fine. Malzahn called UCF a top-20 job nationally and indicated he wants to stay to help foster it into a national power.

Perhaps the best points of reference for this job come from times when Malzahn wasn’t in the SEC fishbowl. As coordinator for Todd Graham at Tulsa, Malzahn’s teams led the nation in offense in 2007 and 2008. At Arkansas State, he inherited a strong roster from Hugh Freeze, went 9-3 and won a Sun Belt title.

Can that type of success be replicated consistently enough to help UCF break through the Group of Five glass ceiling?

Let’s just say that the safest bet is for local Waffle House proprietors to leave a corner booth open on the nights of UCF home games.

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