As UCF’s new head football coach, Gus Malzahn has a reputation reclamation project ahead of him.
At age 55, some think that the game has passed him by.
Malzahn’s failure to produce elite offenses in recent years lead some to wonder if he’s destined for the same downward trajectory as Chip Kelley, the one-time offensive genius who now has an overall record of 10-21 as UCLA’s head coach.
One of his own UCF players, Marlon Williams, responded to the news of Malzahn’s hiring by tweeting “What??” preceded by three facepalm emojis. He then tweeted, “Offense gotta put up similar numbers..wanna see my boys eat.”
This kind of reaction is one reason the Orlando Sentinel’s Mike Bianchi believes Malzahn has something to prove at UCF.
“I think Malzahn sees some of these young whippersnappers, like Josh Heupel and Jeff Lebby, [brother-in-law for Kendal Briles] who a lot of UCF fans wanted to hire because he was under Josh Heupel at UCF,” he recently told Paul Finebaum.
“I think Gus Malzahn sees these guys and said, ‘Wait a minute, these guys are running the no-huddle, hurry up offense that I essentially invented. And now everybody’s like, ‘They can run it better than me’”
Malzahn hasn’t called his own plays in consecutive seasons since 2015-16 and his latest experiment at hiring an offensive coordinator was pretty much a disaster. Indeed, as I detail in full, his friend Chad Morris just about put the hammer down on Malzahn’s time at Auburn.
That experiment gone awry was likely a big reason that Malzahn said during his UCF introductory press conference that he plans to call his own plays for the rest of his career.
While Malzahn may never hire Chad Morris again, he hasn’t given up on the former Razorback football head man’s coaching tree.
Malzahn will fill out his UCF staff with at least two former Razorback staffers who worked under Morris, according to FootballScoop.com reports. The first, SJ Tuohy, worked as an assistant director of football operations for Morris at Arkansas in 2018 and 2019.
The second, GJ Kinne, worked as an Arkansas offensive analyst in 2018 and in the last two years has worked for the Philadelphia Eagles and Hawaii Rainbow Warriors.
Both Tuohy and Kinne had also previously worked for Morris at SMU. In 2008, Kinne quarterbacked Tulsa under Malzahn, then a co-offensive coordinator. Together, the two produced one of the nation’s most prolific offenses and further burnished Malzahn’s reputation as a coach on the cutting edge of the game.
It’s a coaching journey that began in Arkansas.
Gus Malzahn Tabbed as Next Arkansas Football Head Coach?
Malzahn played two seasons for the Razorbacks in the 1980s. In 1991, he began coaching high school football in the state, eventually landing at Springdale High where in 2005 he led one of the most dominant prep teams Arkansas has ever seen.
A handful of those Springdale players, including quarterback Mitch Mustain, receiver Damian Williams and tight end Ben Cleveland, were widely considered must-gets for the Razorbacks to keep in state. If Houston Nutt was calling the shots, however, Arkansas’ run-heavy offense would not have been a good fit for their talents.
By this point, Malzahn was widely acknowledged as a rising superstar destined for bigger things at the college level. Former athletic director Frank Broyles was said to have admired his coaching ability.
Some powerful Razorback boosters saw him as a good fit as a future head coach for Razorback football, according to Pig Trail Nation’s Mike Irwin.
At this time, Broyles was in his early 80s and some boosters* feared that John White (former Arkansas chancellor) would force him out and insert his own choice as athletic director — someone who may not understand how things worked around these parts when it came to fan-friendly policies.
The boosters wanted to know the next athletic director would be someone who knew Razorback culture inside and out, and they felt Houston Nutt would be the best fit, Irwin added in a recent “Ask Mike” segment.
“They didn’t tell Nutt about their plan but they did back him into a corner because of his two previous losing seasons in ‘04 and ‘05,” Irwin said.
He added: “With Frank’s support they got Nutt to hire Malzahn as offensive coordinator. But their ultimate goal was to get Nutt to agree to become AD and give Gus the head coaching job.”
The rest is depressingly familiar history.
Malzahn, along with his Springdale players, arrived on campus with sky-high expectations about what could be accomplished with an all-time backfield featuring Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis.
That team was talented enough to win a national title, and it was in contention to do just that 11 games into the 2006 season with a 10-1 record. Nutt’s decision to take over the offense from Malzahn, while resulting in wins early on, backfired down the stretch as Arkansas lost its last three games.
“Gus Malzahn was the main reason Arkansas opened up the offense to best utilize its talent, until the last three games,” Lance Jones of Little Rock wrote to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
“Then Malzahn’s control of the offense and potential big wins disappeared as we again started calling ultra-conservative plays that gave us no chance to win.”
Simply put, Malzahn and Nutt didn’t mesh. “It was complicated,” Malzahn said in 2012 when trying to describe all the dynamics at play that season in Fayetteville.
In hindsight, it’s clear the boosters’ idea of replacing Broyles with Nutt and then having Malzahn fill in as the Hogs’ head coach was doomed. Even if the Hogs had won one or two of those final three games in 2006, the dysfunction behind the scenes was likely too strong for Nutt and Malzahn to continue a working relationship.
Let’s say, hypothetically, the Nutt conflict never happened and Malzahn had stuck around longer at Arkansas as offensive coordinator and/or head coach.
But now, because of Nick Saban’s dominant presence at Alabama, it’s almost certain he too would have left the program.
Malzahn would have either been fired by now and hopscotched to a bigger program. Outside of Saban, SEC head coaches simply don’t last 10+ years any more.
Malzahn himself learned that when he got the axe after eight seasons at Auburn. Awarded an $21.5 million severance, however, his parting there was still relatively amicable.
Indeed, he he told Finebaum he still considers himself to be part of the Auburn family: “We’ll be rooting hard from here for them.”
Sadly, Malzahn’s departure from the Razorbacks, the program he grew up rooting hard for, has almost zero afterglow. Had coaches used social media as heavily in 2006 as they do now, it’s doubtful Malzahn would have even sent the same kind of goodbye message to Arkansas that his new UCF hire, SJ Tuohy, did.
Before leaving for Tulsa, Malzahn didn’t even spend the time to say “Goodbye” to five players he had brought with him from Springdale High**.
*Irwin doesn’t name who these boosters are. But in the documentary movie “The Identity Theft of Mitch Mustain,” Bo Mattingly mentions Jim Lindsey and Gary George as two boosters who were involved with Broyles and the “Springdale Five.”
**According to interviews with “Springdale Five” players in the same movie. Years later, Mustain said in another interview that he and Malzahan still regularly communicate. (In Malzahn’s defense, a lot of coaches leave this way. It just seems extra cold because these are the guys he had mentored for years in high school, and without whom he could not have broken into college coaching so quickly.)
Learn more about the “Wild Hog” formation Malzahn ran at Arkansas in this 2008 interview: