Roughly a week into his life as an unemployed coach, 55-year-old Gus Malzahn realized he wanted to be back on a sideline.
But not just any sideline. While engaging in casual conversations about some of the existing collegiate job vacancies and even contemplating a TV gig, Malzahn said nothing reinvigorated him like the opportunity at UCF, which he called “one of the top 20 coaching jobs in all of college football.”
The fact that he’d be reunited with one of his former bosses, new Knights athletic director Terry Mohajir, was the clincher.
“I’ve had a lot of respect for the program for a long period of time,” Malzahn said Monday upon being introduced as new Knights coach after a weeklong courtship.
“I was telling Terry during the interview process that the last five years, from time to time I would tell our staff that if the right guy ever got to UCF ... and would stay there and build it, everybody else would be in trouble. I feel like I’m that right guy.”
Malzahn, dismissed in December after eight seasons at Auburn, agreed to a five-year, $11.5 million deal, the Orlando Sentinel reported. He replaces Josh Heupel, who took the job at Tennessee in late January, shortly after former UCF athletic director Danny White was hired for the same position with the Volunteers.
Malzahn worked briefly with Mohajir when both were at Arkansas State. Malzahn was hired as Red Wolves coach in December 2011 and led them to a 9-3 record and Sun Belt Conference title in his only season. Mohajir was hired as the school’s athletic director in September 2012.
“As we were looking at the football accolades ... as our brand continues to emerge nationally, having a national brand coach to marry with is also very important,” said Mohajir, who noted he had 650 text messages when asked about the interest level in the job.
“I believe that he’s the right guy at the right time to lead this program.”
A purveyor of the breakneck offensive tempo in which UCF mostly has flourished in recent seasons, Malzahn went 68-35 overall (39-27 in the SEC) won an SEC title (in 2013) and defeated Alabama three times.
But after his initial AU squad went 12-2, Malzahn’s teams lost at least four games a season in each of his last seven years. His final Tigers team went 6-4, finishing third in the SEC West.
Auburn owes Malzahn a $21.45 million buyout, according to 247Sports. His contract extension with Auburn, signed in 2017, included no mitigation for Auburn’s payout totals should Malzahn take a follow-up job.
“(The Knights) are getting the best Gus Malzahn coach of any time in my career,” he said. “From the fact that I had eight weeks to reflect, refresh, kind of evaluate, too, and to be better the next time you do it.”
He inherits a team on a gradual decline since its 13-0 season in 2017. The Knights went 12-1 and repeated as American Athletic Conference champs in 2018, but went 10-3 the following year (earning a Gasparilla Bowl berth). UCF finished 6-4 in 2020, getting crushed by BYU 49-23 in the Boca Raton Bowl.
Renowned for his normally potent rushing attacks, Malzahn has produced three of the top six team rushing totals in SEC history (2010 as Tigers offensive coordinator, 2013 and 2016). UCF loses its top two rushers from 2020 (Greg McCrae and Otis Anderson), but returns two-time 3,500-yard passer Dillon Gabriel.
“I’m big-time impressed (with Gabriel),“ Malzahn said. “I’m looking forward to working with him and looking forward to developing that relationship.”