Auburn hires ex-assistant Malzahn as head coach
AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — Gus Malzahn stepped off the plane in Auburn and rushed over to a waiting throng of fans, exchanging high-fives and smiles.
He trumpeted "a new day" for the Tigers an hour or so later at his introductory news conference as head coach Tuesday night, but really he's hoping to return them to days only recently gone by.
Malzahn brings his fast-paced offense back to Auburn two years after that style — and quarterback Cam Newton — helped the Tigers win a national title.
"It will be fun for our fans and we will get this thing turned around and play championship football like Auburn expects," he said.
Malzahn was the Tigers' offensive coordinator during their 2010 national championship run before heading to Arkansas State for his first college head coaching position. He led the Red Wolves to a 9-3 record, a Sun Belt Conference title and a berth in the GoDaddy.com Bowl, then parlayed that into a job in the powerhouse Southeastern Conference.
The 47-year-old Malzahn received a five-year contract worth $2.3 million annually to try to get Auburn back on solid footing with players he already knows and some he recruited. He replaces former boss Gene Chizik, who was fired one day after a 49-0 loss to No. 2 Alabama to complete a 3-9 season.
Malzahn hasn't ruled out coaching in the bowl game for Arkansas State, which said he had a $700,000 buyout. He said he would talk to Arkansas State administrators about that Jan. 5 game with Kent State but that Auburn is his top priority.
Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs declined to say whom else he interviewed, but said Malzahn was "the clear unanimous choice of our search committee."
"The characteristics that he brought to the table were head and shoulders above everybody else," Jacobs said.
The offense especially is in dire need of a makeover after struggles in transitioning to a pro-style system.
Auburn had the nation's 115th-ranked offense last season, averaging 305 yards a game. The Red Wolves were ranked 19th in total yards under Malzahn.
"We will be a fast-paced, attacking-style offense and defense," Malzahn said. "In this day and age, I believe you have to."
It's the second straight time Auburn has turned to one of its coordinators from an unbeaten team. Chizik ran the defense for the 13-0 team in 2004, and was hired by the Tigers despite a 5-19 record in two seasons at Iowa State.
The search committee was comprised of Jacobs, Auburn Heisman Trophy winners Pat Sullivan and Bo Jackson, and former Tigers player Mac Crawford.
Jackson said he was confident that "we got the right man."
"We talked to a lot of talented coaches, a lot of coaches that are going to be Division I coaches other places, and they're all stars in their own right," said Jackson, the 1985 Heisman winner. "Gus shined a little bit brighter than those guys in the interview process."
Malzahn said his first priorities will be recruiting and hiring coordinators, but didn't mention any candidates.
Auburn owes more than $11 million in buyouts to Chizik and his coaching staff.
The Tigers are hoping Malzahn can return them to success after a winless SEC season.
But Auburn is also looking for a coach to instill discipline to a program plagued with off-field problems the last few years, including the arrest of four players for armed robbery after the 2010 season.
The NCAA has been investigating the recruitment of signee Jovon Robinson, who was ruled ineligible after a guidance counselor admitted to creating a fake transcript.
"I feel very confident that everything is fine, and that's my understanding," Malzahn said.
The hiring was welcome news for players who just endured Auburn's worst season in 60 years.
"I know coach Malzahn, and he's an amazing man," defensive end Nosa Eguae said. "He's a standup guy. I'm looking forward to the future. I can't wait to get started and turn this thing around and get some wins."
Malzahn was earning $1.3 million a year with the Tigers and interviewed with Vanderbilt after the national championship season. He took a substantial pay cut to join the head coaching ranks with the Sun Belt Conference team. Malzahn replaced Hugh Freeze, who also left after one season at Arkansas State to take over at Mississippi.
Malzahn also made a couple of decisions with players that didn't pan out. Tailback Mike Dyer transferred from Auburn — where he was suspended — to Arkansas State. He was then dismissed by Arkansas State in July after a state trooper found marijuana and a gun in a car the national title game MVP was driving.
However, Jacobs said discipline was a factor in choosing Malzahn.
"The wins and losses and all of that comes into play," he said. "When Gus came in and laid out his plan to the committee, he touched on everything that we thought was important and then some. It is all important."