Gus Malzahn To Arkansas State: WTF?

Raise your hand if you had Gus Malzahn leaving $1.3 million a year to take the Arkansas State head coaching job for $800k.

Yeah, didn’t think so.

Raise your hand if you thought Arkansas State would make the best hire of the 2011 coaching carousel. (Stop with the emails Ohio State fans. You were going to get someone good. Urban Meyer’s better than good, but Arkansas State outkicked their coaching coverage a lot more than you guys did).

Gus Malzahn, the erstwhile highest paid offensive coordinator in the country, is the new head coach of Arkansas State.

All of this raises the question, why now? Why is Gus Malzahn leaving Auburn at this time for this job?

Let’s dive in and try to make sense of this move.

1. Remember that Gus Malzahn accepted an offer in the neighborhood of $3 million a year to take over at Vanderbilt last year.

After accepting that job, Malzahn then backtracked and got a big raise to remain at Auburn.

After Malzahn reneged on his acceptance, Vanderbilt took James Franklin, its second choice, and a year later the Commodores couldn’t be happier.

But if you ever doubt the need for a coach to strike while his name is hot, Malzahn is the new Greg Schiano. (Closer to home he’s the new Rick Stockstill). You can go from brilliant to a coaching afterthought in a single season. If you can get paid, you need to get paid while you can.

Remember when everybody said Gus Malzahn shouldn’t jump at the first job he was offered because there would be better ones later?

Yeah, so much for that.

2. Did this Kristi Malzahn video torpedo Gus’s head-coaching chances?

As the husband of a smart, talkative, opinionated wife, I don’t have any issue with anything Kristi Malzahn says here. In fact, I have more of an issue with selective editing. You lose all context and by selectively editing a video or quotes you can make anyone look awful. That’s why I haven’t made much of an issue of this video before. Hell, I didn’t even link it a month ago when I was one of the first to receive it. I watched the whole thing then and just didn’t see the big deal.

But coaching is a remarkably conservative field.

This video was widely circulated just in time for the 2011 season to end. Gus Malzahn was rumored to be in the mix at North Carolina, he was rumored to be in the mix at Ole Miss and then…nothing. A year after he turned down $3 million a year at Vandy, Malzahn couldn’t sniff a big time job. 

Something changed. 

What?

Did Malzahn simply lose his coaching cachet thanks to a poor offensive season with the Tigers?

Did his wunderkid status wear off?

Or did this video help to make him an unpalatable hire for top jobs?

Watch the video and then let me know whether this would have any impact on your hiring Malzahn. It would have zero impact on me, but did it have an impact in coaching circles?

Yeah, it very well may have.  

3. Did Cam Newton’s NFL success come back to hurt Malzahn this year?

No one is talking about Cam’s NFL success and how it might have impacted the perception of Gus Malzahn, but I think lots of football minds gave Malzahn a tremendous amount of credit for his ability to utilize Cam with such a short turnaround last year. Then the NFL season arrived with no training camps at all and Cam became one of the most prolific rookie passers in the history of the league.

Suddenly Malzahn didn’t look as brilliant.

You think that didn’t have an impact with the North Carolina job? Especially when Tar Heel folk were getting to watch Newton every weekend on television?

If Cam had come into the NFL and looked like Blaine Gabbert does this year or, God forbid, JaMarcus Russell, Gus Malzahn’s 2010 coaching performance would have looked even more impressive. Instead Cam has looked like he’s on the fast track to bona fide NFL superstar status.

Combine Cam’s star turn with Malzahn’s weak offensive showing in 2011 and some could argue that Malzahn wasn’t as good as credit suggested.

4. Did Malzahn fear that another bad offensive year would torpedo his chances at any job at all?

If you buy this scenario then Malzahn simply leapt at the first job he could find. Auburn fans, do you expect your offense to be vastly improved in 2011 or is there a niggling fear that things could go really bad in 2011? It helps that Arkansas State is pretty well stocked for another Sun Belt run and that Malzanh would trust his buddy Freeze’s analysis of the team he was leaving.

Also, is Malzahn simply following in the footsteps of Hugh Freeze, Arkansas State’s one year head coach who got the Ole Miss job after amassing ten wins?

Remember that both men have similar resumes. Freeze and Malzahn were high school coaches until 2004 and 2005, respectively. So did Malzahn see what happened with Freeze — one great year as head coach that led to an SEC job — and think he could rekindle the fire behind his own name if won big as a head coach? In other words, is it worth taking less money for a year or two if you could rebuild yourself to a $3 million a year offer with head-coaching success?

That’s Malzahn’s gamble, that he can be more successful at Arkansas State than he could at Auburn.

If I was an Auburn fan the fact that Malzahn is taking that gamble would scare the hell out of me.

5. Is something rotten at Auburn?

Even the most diehard Auburn fan has to acknowledge that Malzahn leaving for this job is odd. Would y’all take a half-million dollars less a year for more work responsibility? Because that’s what Malzahn did. What’s more, being the highest paid offensive coordinator in the SEC is a higher profile job than being the head coach at Arkansas State.

So you have to ask yourself, what’s going on at Auburn?

Especially with Ted Roof leaving — I know, I know, his defenses were suspect but the departure is still odd — and Michael Dyer suspended.

Was there friction this year between Chizik and Malzahn? Did Chizik finally come to resent Malzahn’s rising coaching star? Did Chizik meddle too much on offense?

Or, more alarmingly for Auburn fans, did the NCAA finally find something credible in its investigation?

Because no matter how you slice it, Gus Malzahn to Arkansas State is an odd move. Either Malzahn will reemerge in a year or two as one of the hottest names in coaching or we’ll be talking about him for years to come as a guy who didn’t strike while the coaching iron was hot. 

But if Malzahn replicates Freeze’s work at Arkansas State, proves he can be a head coach playing an exciting brand of football, and wins ten games in 2011?

You could be looking at the next head coach of the University of Tennessee.  

Or, even funnier, you could be looking at the next head coach of Auburn.

If Chizik tanks the next two seasons while Malzahn won double digit games two seasons in a row at Arkansas State, are you really telling me Auburn people wouldn’t be clamoring to fire Chizik and bring back Malzahn?

Better check the airport logs Gene, your university has a history of sending out planes to pick up offensive wizards.

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