Gus Malzahn relishes the chance to start again as a ball coach while helping UCF raise their national profile
Gus Malzahn appears to be a new man in a not-so-old program. That’s another way of saying the 55-year-old UCF coach got a makeover, suddenly getting hotter than the last Disney World ride.
“You went through something quite traumatic,” UCF athletic director Terry Mohajir told his new coach earlier this year. “Are you ready to go home?” How are you ? “
Malzahn replied, “You better believe it, man.”
The trauma of being fired at Auburn – the first time in his career this had happened – has faded. You don’t often see it, an established Power Five trainer descends to the Group of Five level. When he was fired in December, Malzahn could have sat, watched TV, visited camps and sat on a pile of eight-figure buyout money.
Except Gus is a ball trainer.
Reuniting with his former boss in Arkansas State was too good to be left out. Resuming a busy schedule also helped. Gus has an established quarterback (Dillon Gabriel), a staff filled with excellence (three assistants have been on programs that have 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 those strange days of realignment, UCF has been quietly aggressive. He called the Power Five to inquire about the entrance. He 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. He will try anything and everything to play in the big boys.
Enter Malzahn, who joins the Knights at a perfect time. There is no sign that their success is fading. Before him, George O’Leary, Scott Frost and Josh Heupel combined to win 68 games playing in three BCS / New Year’s Six Bowls (winning two) over the past eight seasons.
During the same span, Malzahn won the same number of games (68) at Auburn with three wins over Alabama, one national championship berth, two SEC West titles and one SEC championship.
The Malzahn era begins on September 2 with an all-or-nothing game against Boise State. It highlights an intertwined relationship. Malzahn first became a 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 to his Power Five’s first job.
Do you have it all?
Auburn’s critics will point out the lack of development of the program in recent years. It may be true. But a new beginning is a new beginning.
In Orlando, there is no Alabama. In Orlando, there is an integrated and accomplished quarterback (Gabriel, the national passing yard leader in 2020). In Orlando, no helicopter thruster buzzes over his shoulder.
It’s just a bullet, man.
“We’re trying to change the rookie narrative, we’re not one of the best non-Power Five programs,” Malzahn said. “We’re going to be one of the best programs in all of college football.”
Eight weeks after being made redundant at Auburn, Malzahn is back in the saddle for what promises to be the adventure of a lifetime. That says a lot for a coach who has the seventh best active winning percentage (at least 100 career games). It sounds a lot like 2006, when Malzahn was picked from the Arkansas high school ranks to begin his college career with the Razorbacks.
We have the impression of starting over.
The expansion of college football qualifiers has largely left the discussion of UCF’s possibilities to the side. As proposed, the 12-team playoffs would include the top six conference champions. This secures the American champion a place in the playoffs. Remember, the conference champion has earned a New Year’s spot in five of the PCP’s first even years. UCF in 2018 and Cincinnati in 2020 – both ranked No.8 in the end – would theoretically have been in a 12-team playoff game.
“It changed everything for us,” Malzahn said of the expansion talks. “When I first got here, I immediately started thinking, ‘How do we make the four-team playoffs? It has been proven that you can go undefeated here. … Now it’s  teams, it’s set up very well for us. “
The season cannot begin without a proper presentation of the new Gus. This one is not stifled by the dominant forces in Auburn. This one is not switching over from the play call.
“This is what I love to do,” said Malzahn. “That’s really what got me to where I am today. I will be doing this for the rest of my career. There is no more back and forth.”
Malzahn came out of his shell, the one that kept him in the stoic mold of the SEC coach. No more.
The words came out of his mouth: “It’s a future for college football.” The UCF administration therefore erected a series of billboards across the state, including Gainesville, home of the Florida Gators.
This is not trolling, this is a five star challenge. Former UCF AD Danny White criticized Florida for not playing their program in a home game; he turned down the Gators’ efforts to create a run-of-the-mill 2-for-1 series with the Knights. Mohajir jumped at the chance this offseason. Florida and UCF will play three times starting in 2024.
“It was really me who thought this could be the program of the future,” said Malzahn. “I think I got hired at 9 p.m. Sunday night in Auburn, Alabama. I did a presser [in Orlando] at noon eastern time. I didn’t have a lot of time to really prepare myself. It really came out. It is one of the programs of the future.
“I think everything is in place. The foundations have been laid.”