Why did Gus Malzahn jump at the chance to coach UCF 2 months after Auburn football ouster?

Josh Vitale
Montgomery Advertiser

Gus Malzahn was pretty set on sitting out for a year.

Auburn fired the 55-year-old football coach after eight seasons on Dec. 13. He did have some contact with other schools about potential jobs openings, but nothing close to serious. He was exploring the possibility of maybe doing some TV during the 2021 season.

Then the job at UCF came open Jan. 27, when Josh Heupel followed athletics director Danny White to Tennessee. “That,” Malzahn said, “changed everything for me.”

He was introduced as Heupel’s replacement less than three weeks later.

“I’ve been coaching 30 years,” Malzahn said during his introductory press conference Monday, “and I truly believe this is one of the most exciting moments I’ve had in my whole career.”

So, why UCF? The first reason, Malzahn said, was because of the respect he had for the program. He told members of his Auburn staff at times during the past five years that, “if the right guy ever got there and would stay there and build it, everybody else would be in trouble."

The Knights are a Group of 5 program in the American Athletic Conference, but they have won double-digit games in three of the past four seasons, have top-notch facilities and are located in Orlando – a central city in one of the most talent-rich recruiting territories in the country.

Malzahn saw firsthand what they were capable of in the Peach Bowl, when UCF defeated SEC West champion Auburn 34-27 to complete a 13-0 2017 season, after which it claimed a national championship.

"I feel like I’m that right guy," Malzahn said. “I truly believe this is a program of the future in college football."

So Malzahn was intrigued as soon as the position came open. That only grew when UCF hired Terry Mohajir as its athletics director last week – he was the athletics director at Arkansas State when Malzahn was head coach there in 2012.

“It went from, ‘Man, I’m really interested,’ to ‘Man, I really want that job,’” Malzahn said. “We know each other. We’ve already got a relationship. We won a championship together. When I was asking him questions about his vision for the program, they aligned.”

That vision is to compete for championships, same as it was at Auburn. Malzahn said he wouldn’t have been interested in a job that didn’t come with those expectations. UCF has done that at a conference level in recent seasons, winning the AAC title game in both 2017 and 2018.

No Group of 5 program has ever reached the College Football Playoff, but Malzahn didn’t shy away from saying that one of his goals was to change that.

“We need to change the narrative. This is going to be one of the best programs in college football in a short period of time,” Malzahn said. “This is a job that I'm planning on being here and building it, and, like I said, that's what really makes me tick.”

Malzahn is going to do it his way, too. He said he’s “definitely” going to call plays and do so “the rest of my career,” which is something he went back and forth on during the latter half of his Auburn tenure. “That’s what I love to do,” he said. “That’s what I’m good at, and that’s what got me here.”

It’s a revelation he’s had before, but this time it was different. Malzahn had been employed as a coach every day dating back to his start as the defensive coordinator at Hughes (Ark.) High in 1991. The last eight weeks marked the first time in 30 years that he was able to truly sit back and self-evaluate.

He slept past his usual 6 a.m. alarm. He spent time with his wife, Kristi, and their daughters and grandkids with no job pressure gnawing at him. He probably worked on his golf game as much as he ever has before, if not more.

But it wasn’t too long before it hit him that, “Yes, I do want to coach again.” UCF gave him an opportunity that he couldn’t pass up.

“I was ready,” Malzahn said. “I really believe – and I told Terry this – that they're getting the best Gus Malzahn coach of any time in my career for the fact that I had eight weeks to reflect, refresh, and kind of evaluate, too, and to be better the next time you do it.

“When I tell you at the very first that I'm one of the most excited I've been in my whole coaching career, it's legit.”

Josh Vitale is the Auburn beat writer for the Montgomery Advertiser. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoshVitale. To reach him by email, click here.