Gus Malzahn to UCF feels so right. It is not only the best addition of the current hiring cycle of college football coaches, it’s the best Group of Five hire basically since we started calling it the Group of Five about 10 years ago.
And it’s not even close.
That’s because championship-pedigree Power Five coaches with a .670 winning percentage usually don’t fall out of the sky for the likes of UCF. It’s been 20 years since FIU’s Butch Jones led Miami back to relevancy. Lane Kiffin (at FAU in 2017) comes to mind, but that’s a stretch. Kiffin went to FAU having needed the Alabama car wash and Nick Saban’s tutelage to become a head coach again.
Malzahn beat the master three times. He also won a national championship as an offensive coordinator and played for one as a head coach.
What’s not to like? At 55, he’s in the in the prime of his coaching career, and he sounded like a coach rejuvenated during his introductory press conference on Monday.
The best Group of Five coaches don’t have Power Five head coaching experience: Billy Napier, Luke Fickell (one year as an Ohio State interim), Bill Clark, Bryan Harsin (just now having replaced Malzahn at Auburn). UCF just inherited the only active coach walking the earth with that hat trick over Saban.
There is no disgrace going from SEC to the AAC. Former UCF athletic director Danny White spent six years shaping UCF into a football power that claimed its own national championship and energized Orlando, Florida. We know what the Knights can be because we’ve witnessed it.
Gus could have taken a year or two off doing TV and counting his Auburn buyout money. But there’s a reason he barely took a breath after his firing. In his history, if Malzahn isn’t calling ball plays, he’s delegating someone else to call ball plays before quickly taking over ball play calling.
If this works out, Malzahn is probably gone in a few years, but everyone should know that going in. All concerned parties enter this relationship with their eyes wide open. New UCF AD Terry Mohajir is familiar with the situation having led the program with Malzahn as coach at Arkansas State in 2012. Malzahn stayed one season, his first as a college head coach, and Mohajir had to make a replacement. That replacement, Bryan Harsin, also lasted one season. There will be every reason to believe Malzahn could be a short-timer when the next SEC or ACC job of substance opens up. Maybe as soon as 2022.
That’s fine. We’re all adults here.
“I truly believe we will be in the final four in a short period of time,” Malzahn said Monday.
Note that Malzahn is not a losing coach. He just didn’t win enough for Auburn. The expectations are different, less maddening than the SEC West.
Then again, this could also just be who Malzahn is for the remainder of his career: an energetic offensive mastermind still in his prime chasing New Year’s Six and College Football Playoff berths near Disney World. If both entities stay in their current relationship, think of the ceiling for UCF: The CFP is likely to expand when the current contract expires in five years.
“I’ve thought for a long time eight would be a better number [for the playoff],” Malzahn said Monday. “There are some big time ball games that get overlooked. … The top Group of Five teams are right there. I got experience playing UCF in a bowl game and getting beat. I know there’s not a lot of distance between top Power Five teams especially this one.”
Gus may or may not be around, but that’s not the point. He’s got the itch, and he’s got a built-in quarterback to win right now in the accomplished Dillon Gabriel. (Let’s hope Malzahn keeps defensive coordinator Randy Shannon, by the way.)
If the worst thing you can say about Malzahn is he can’t develop quarterbacks. Well, welcome to the age of the transfer portal. Malzahn goes from trying to beat Alabama, LSU, Texas A&M, Florida and Georgia to taking on … Memphis and Cincinnati. You’ve got to like his chances.
UCF has been the AAC’s best program since the conference launched in 2013. The American has been the Group of Five’s best conference since the CFP started in 2014. The state of Florida continues to be dripping with talent. Former Knights coach Scott Frost once told me his research showed that one in 99 Florida high school players signs a Division I scholarship. California and Texas are next at one in 400.
That’s where Malzahn fits nicely as well. It will be a relief to wake up every day not having to read or hear what Alabama just did, 24/7/365. That’s Harsin’s problem now. Grade: A+
Remember when COVID-19 was supposed to be a mulligan year for embattled coaches? Not exactly. While the pandemic probably lessened the volume of departures — only 15 this offseason — it didn’t keep some big time programs from swallowing some big-time cash. Texas, South Carolina and Auburn paid a combined $42 million to buy out departed coaches.
The total buyout figure for the nine coaches fired on the list below is more than $53 million. (Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason was a 10th fired coach, but buyout figures are not available because it is a private institution.) That’s an average of $5.89 million. That’s one consideration in making a change. The 15 changes now make it 86 schools that have switched coaches at least once in the last four seasons (66%). Patience is not a virtue among athletic directors.
Here’s how we grade the rest of the hires as we enter the 2021 college football season.
||Steve Sarkisian||A||In one sense, Sark seems a lot like Tom Herman four years ago — the hottest name left on the board. Championship pedigree. Offensive guy. Texas boosters long ago took their shot at Nick Saban (and missed). Just last month, they took a run at Urban Meyer (and missed). Sarkisian is the next best thing — college football’s best play caller fresh off a national championship. Sark has yet to win 10 games in a season or conference title as a head coach. He is being given every possible resource to do so at Texas. If not, he will come full circle and be the next Tom Herman — in a different sense.|
||Bryan Harsin||A-||It’s OK to refer to Harsin as Auburn’s fourth (or fifth) choice. If he was the first pick, he would have been on the first flight out of Boise State when Malzahn was fired. Instead, the school went through Auburn’s version of, ahem, “The Process”. Harsin arrives unfamiliar with SEC culture but plenty of experience to back him up. The Tigers must get better offensively — right now. There will be an SEC recruiting learning curve for any Boise newcomers on the staff.|
||Bret Bielema||A-||The Lovie Smith Experiment failed. AD Josh Whitman did the right thing in transitioning to an experienced, willing, winning former Big Ten college head coach to clean up the Illini mess. Illinois should never be this bad. It will immediately be more physical under Bielema who took Wisconsin to three straight Rose Bowls.|
||Andy Avalos||B+||After Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore dropped out, Avalos was an easy choice. A former Broncos linebacker, Avalos helped lead Oregon to consecutive Pac-12 titles as defensive coordinator. His 2019 unit was second in the conference allowing the 14th fewest yards per game in the Pac-12 since 2008 (329). Boise has hired a former Broncos player or assistant coach to be head coach going back to 1998. The only drawback? Avalos has never been a head coach.|
||Blake Anderson||B+||Anderson needed a change of scenery. Utah State needed a reliable coach. Anderson left Arkansas State after seven seasons as the longest tenured coach at the school in 11 years. Gary Anderson just … left three games into his second season. For Blake Anderson, it was just time for a change. He had lost his wife to cancer while in Jonesboro before the 2019 season. Coming off his worst career season in 2020 (4-7), he gets to start over at a Group of Five invested in winning.|
||Clark Lea||B||What James Franklin accomplished at Vandy becomes more amazing each day. In three short seasons, he became the first Commodores’ coach since Bill Edwards (1949-52) to leave with a winning record. Franklin skipped for Penn State after winning back-to-back nine-win seasons. Lea, Notre Dame’s former defensive coordinator, needs to hire a difference-making offensive coordinator to keep up with the SEC superpowers. If you’ve spent any time around him, you get the sense he can do it. The former Vandy fullback is smart enough to realize the program’s woeful lack of resources. He also may be able to coach through it.|
||Butch Jones||B||Along with Sarkisian, Jones was a successful graduate from Saban’s career rehab center at Alabama. Look at what Tennessee has become. What Jones accomplished there looks better and better each day. Since 2007, Jones is the only Vols coach to win nine games in consecutive seasons. Arkansas State usually doesn’t whiff on head coaching hires. Its last four coaches have won 65% of their games. The school is used to being a springboard (See: Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn, Bryan Harsin). Would you take a 52-year-old SEC veteran who spent the last three years as an Alabama analyst? Yes, you would.|
||Terry Bowden||B||At 64, Bowden wanted one last swing at the coaching pinata. Bobby’s son knows about turnarounds. Terry went undefeated at Auburn (including three nine-win seasons). He then loaded up on transfers at Division II North Alabama taking the Lions to three straight playoff appearances. Bowden took Akron to its first ever game bowl game (and bowl win). Oh, and he spent the last two season as a Clemson analyst. If age is an issue, well, it shouldn’t be. Anyone who succeeds at ULM isn’t going to be around long anyway. Why not go with a proven guy as a bridge coach?|
||Kane Womack||B||This was a no brainer after the Jags decided to part ways with Steve Campbell. Wommack was South Alabama’s defensive coordinator from 2016-17. The Broyles Award finalist (best assistant coach) was a big part of an Indiana turnaround the past two seasons. In 2020, his unit led the Big Ten in interceptions (17), takeaways (20) and opponent red zone conversions (64%). Justin Fields threw a career-worst three picks against the Hoosiers on Nov. 21. The son of a coach (Dave Wommack, former DC at Arkansas, Ole Miss), this is a good starter job in a much-improved conference.|
||Will Hall||B||Southern Miss needed a Willie Fritz-like offensive revival. It got the next best thing, Fritz’s offensive coordinator. Under Hall, Tulane averaged more than 34 points per game in 2020, its highest output in more than a decade. Hall knows the territory. He is a Mississippi native and two-time JUCO All-American quarterback. The Eagles haven’t been to a bowl in five years or won a conference title in 10 years.|
||Charles Huff||B-||The question of whether Doc Holliday should have been renewed has to be answered first. His replacement will have to average almost eight wins and last 11 seasons. The Thundering Herd were 7-0 and ranked at one point last season. That said, Huff is one of the best recruiters in the country and a savant with running backs. Ask Saquon Barkley and Najee Harris. Marshall wants to chase championships. Coming from Saban’s coaching tree doesn’t hurt.|
||Josh Heupel||C||When Heupel was announced, it was largely a shoulder shrug. Not terrible, not great. Other, more accomplished candidates, were no doubt scared away by the NCAA investigation. Sure, he’s the offensive-friendly guy that AD Danny White wanted, but in the end, this seemed like a fall back when the likes of Tony Elliott decided to stay put. Heupel’s record at UCF declined each season. There were rumblings about how recruiting suffered. An offensive wizard who has a golden touch with quarterbacks will have to learn in a hurry how to recruit elite defensive tackles for Tennessee to contend once again in the SEC. For starters.|
||Jedd Fisch||C||There are those that say Arizona deserved a head coach. Fisch is only the second Wildcats coach hired since 1977 not to have head coaching experience. The school apparently ignored interest for the second time from Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo. This is Fisch’s 12th stop in the NFL or college since 2002. He’ll have to win over skeptics who wanted a coach with ties to the school.|
||Shane Beamer||C-||Frank Beamer’s son is one of the most talented and likeable guys on his way up the ladder. But Shane has never even been a coordinator. There were defections galore upon his hiring. Two defenders transferred to Florida State. Leading tackler Ernest Jones declared for the draft. Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo (who was retained) and offensive line coach Will Friend (who was hired from Tennessee) left for Auburn. The top two quarterbacks departed. For a program that is losing traction in the SEC — 6-16 in the last two seasons — Beamer can’t afford any more slippage.|