Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Gus Malzahn weirdness

I was actually working on a post yesterday about how it was possible that Gus Malzahn had been passed over for half a dozen BCS-conference coaching jobs that went to guys with (arguably) less impressive resumes. And then he got hired:
JONESBORO, Ark. -- Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn will be the new football coach at Arkansas State.

Sports information director Jerry Scott said that Malzahn will be introduced as the new coach during a news conference Wednesday afternoon.
So ... ummm ... WHAT?!? We're talking about arguably the best offensive coordinator in the country. The guy has a national championship ring and six years of D-I coordinator experience, with all of them awesome except the last one. He turned down the Vanderbilt job last year, was allegedly the frontrunner at North Carolina forever and was on every list made by every person over the last two weeks. And he's now leaving Auburn to take over Arkansas State, where he'll be voluntarily cutting his salary in half to about $600,000 a year to run a zero-prominence Sun Belt program.

How did this happen? Why are presumably intelligent and successful people passing on Gus Malzahn to hire Tim Beckman and Jim Mora Jr. (?!?) and Todd Graham, and why is Gus Malzahn leaving Auburn to go to Arkansas State (State!)?

I'm not Gus Malzahn or Gus Malzahn's agent and therefore really don't have an answer. I have to assume he would have been considered for at least a couple of those jobs, so the lack of even tenuous rumored/sourced connections probably means he shot down any interest from the outset. My guess is that he really prefers to stay in the Southeast. Again, he nearly accepted the Vanderbilt job last year and was known to have talked with Arkansas in '07 and North Carolina at some point before Larry Fedora was hired. The extent of his job history also backs up the Southeast thing: Arkansas high school coach, Arkansas offensive coordinator, Tulsa offensive coordinator (after he left Arkansas amid the whole Mitch Mustain/Houston Nutt debacle), Auburn offensive coordinator. His entire life has been spent in about an 800-mile radius (all to the south) of Arkansas, which is where he grew up.

There's probably something to be said for going home and yadda yadda yadda. There's also something to be said for being able to run a program the way you want to run a program, which in Malzahn's case isn't insignificant. There are places where politics and hobnobbing and whatnot are as important as, like, winning and stuff; I'm pretty sure Arkansas State isn't one of those places. He'll have to deal with little other than actual coaching-type things.

As for the better jobs, I'm curious as to whether the lack of head coaching experience was much of an issue. UCLA and ASU made a pretty big deal about that being a prerequisite, so maybe he figured he needed a rung-on-the-ladder type of job just to get it on his resume. Look at Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss: One year of successful coaching = many years of successful coordinator-ing. Speaking of Hugh Freeze, Arkansas State went 10-2 this year. Winning the Sun Belt next year with the senior version of Ryan Aplin looks totally doable, and that might be sufficient to bump Malzahn from "awesome coordinator" to "legitimate coach" and get him the non-blah coaching offers he presumably wants (more on that momentarily).

I have no interest in breaking down how good or bad the Arkansas State job is and what the long-term outlook is; the school's statement that "It's pretty incredible" tells the story. My interest is more in Malzahn and what exactly he wants to do. He could be running the show at Vanderbilt right now but chose not to for reasons nobody's totally sure of (maybe the academics, maybe the difficulty of every winning more than six games, etc.). It must not have been an issue of holding out for a better offer given the events of the last 24 hours. He also could have been a candidate at any number of other places but again (apparently) chose not to. Those things are kinda hard to reconcile with his introduction at Arkansas State. His stock definitely dropped some this year since Auburn couldn't find a quarterback or get first downs against Alabama, but it didn't drop that much considering what he had to work with (basically the '08 Michigan offense dropped into the SEC West).

There's really only one explanation I can come up with: He wants to be a head coach, wants to be in the Southeast and wants a real (non-Vandy) SEC job with a real shot at real success, with Arkansas State representing the easiest/most logical path for a kid from northern Arkansas. I say that's the only explanation because every other logical one ends with him (a) being the head coach at Vandy or North Carolina or Illinois or wherever or (b) continuing to get paid $1.3 million by Auburn to be one of the elite O-coordinators in the country.

Since none of those things are happening, I'm hoping the Arkansas State thing works out in terms of career progression. I hate the idea of arguably the best and most creative offensive mind in the country being relegated to WhoCares University in Nowheresville, Arkansas (yes, selfish writer is selfish).


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