After Charlie Weis was hired at Kansas last week, Crystal Ball Run told you that there simply wouldn’t be more shocking coaching hire this offseason. Well, with all due respect to Mr. Weis, move on over, because we’ve got a new “most surprising hire of 2011” to report.
According to the website AStateNation.com, the Arkansas State Red Wolves- who recently lost head coach Hugh Freeze to Ole Miss- are set to announce… (are you ready for this?) …Gus Malzahn as their next head football coach.
Jaw, meet floor.
Simply put, in a college football coaching offseason which has held particular intrigue, this one takes the cake. Because of the school (a Sun Belt outfit with less football history than pretty much anyone in the FBS), because of the name (Malzahn was the hottest coordinator in the country a year ago) and the money, it just doesn’t get more off-the-radar and surprising than this. Speaking of the money, according to AL.com, Malzahn will “only” be paid about $850,000 a year, a significant pay decrease from the $1.3 million he made as the highest paid coordinator in college football in 2011. It is also less than a third of what he was reportedly offered by Vanderbilt to be their head coach last season (according to reports, Malzahn was offered close to $3 million per year).
However, it appears that money aside, Malzahn simply couldn’t wait any longer to head coaching job. It was no secret that he wanted to be a head man, and after a disappointing 2011 season at Auburn, now seemed like an appropriate time to bolt from the Plains.
Undersand that while at this time last year Malzahn was the hottest name in coaching circles, the shine on his star dramatically decreased in 2011. After winning a title in 2010 with Cam Newton leading college football’s seventh ranked offense (they averaged 499 yards per game), Auburn was nothing short of anemic on offense this year. Without Newton, and with almost the entire offensive line gone to graduation, Auburn finished the year ranked just 104th in total offense, putting up a paltry 328 yards per game. In the process, the Tigers shuffled in three quarterbacks, never established a go-to receiver, and never seemed totally comfortable doing anything but allowing Michael Dyer to run up the middle. The low point was undoubtedly an Iron Bowl loss in which the offense put up zero points (Auburn scored a special teams and defensive touchdown) and finished with just 140 total yards.
At the same time, it’s hard to totally blame Malzahn for the output either, considering that his high-octane offense has pretty much been unstoppable up until this past season. Beyond just the 2010 year (in which pretty much anyone could’ve called plays and had success with Newton), Malzahn’s offenses have been among the nation’s best since he burst onto the scene as offensive coordinator at Arkansas in 2006. As coordinator at Tulsa in 2007 and 2008 the Golden Hurricane ranked No. 1 in the country in total offense both years, and in his first year at Auburn in 2009 (without Netwon and with Chris Todd, mind you), his offense ranked 16th nationally too. That's a stupendous mark as is; let alone for any first year coordinator in the SEC.
Because of that, it’s hard not to think Arkansas State simply got a coaching steal in Malzahn. Besides the fact his teams have been among the most productive offenses every single year he’s been on the coaching scene, Malzahn is an Arkansas native, and was a head coach at the high school level for 15 years before moving to college. Not to mention that his offense is similar to the one Freeze used this year, which helped the Red Wolves finish 24th nationally in total offense. With junior quarterback Ryan Aplin back off a 10-win team, there is no reason to think that the Red Wolves can’t stay a force at the top of the Sun Belt, where they finished 8-0 in league play.
Granted, questions still remain about Malzahn. He has never been known as a particularly proficient recruiter, something that Gene Chizik and Trooper Taylor have handled mostly for the last two years at Auburn, and given his lack of major college coaching experience (six years and counting) it’ll be curious to see what kind of staff he’ll be able to put together. He’ll also need to find someone competent to run his defense, which is a problem he’s never had to worry about before.
But for a coach who needed a shot, and a program who needed a coach, this just couldn’t seem like a better match.
Apparently Kansas isn’t the only school that can make a coaching splash.
For all his insight, opinion and analysis on college football, follow Aaron Torres on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.