JONESBORO — Arkansas State Athletic Director Dean Lee thought little of it when his phone rang last week and Gus Malzahn was on the other end.
Malzahn and Lee have a relationship that stretches back to 1989 when the two were at Henderson State as student and professor. From there they developed a friendship that included Lee calling Malzahn a year ago to get feedback on coaching candidates for an open spot at Arkansas State.
When the Red Wolves job opened a year later, Malzahn was on Lee’s call list. Lee wanted to pick the renowned offensive mind’s, uh, mind about possible candidates. Lee just hadn’t gotten around to making the call yet.
Malzahn made that call for Lee.
And when Lee made a crack about Malzahn being ready to “return home,” he was met with silence on the other end. Malzahn hadn’t called specifically to pitch himself as a candidate, but the off-handed comment gave him pause.
“Initially, I was planning on giving some feedback,” Malzahn told me Wednesday. “Then, I don’t know, the conversation just went the other way.
“In a hurry.”
In a hurry? Of course.
Malzahn, introduced Wednesday as Arkansas State's new head coach, is, after all, the author of the book on the “Hurry-Up, No-Huddle.” He’s made his career on coaching a fast-paced style that led to unprecedented success at the Arkansas high school level and he led some of the nation’s best offenses at Arkansas, Tulsa and Auburn.
Just a year ago, Malzahn was prepping the Tigers and Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton for the BCS national championship game. Auburn has struggled this year and ranks No. 104 in total offense entering the Dec. 31 Chick-Fil-A Bowl, but when Malzahn gave Lee indication he’d be interested in taking over at Arkansas State, Lee had no qualms about offering the job to his friend.
Only a year ago, Malzahn was the toast of the college football world. He had worked wonders at Auburn — pre-Cam Newton — and Tulsa, proving that his offense could be made to work without a Heisman Trophy winner or runner up (Darren McFadden at Arkansas in 2006). Malzahn reportedly turned down opportunities to coach at Maryland and Vanderbilt, where his offer was in the $3 million range.
Malzahn passed. Instead he “settled” for being the highest paid offensive coordinator in football at $1.3 million.
Knowing where Malzahn was a year ago, and that he had a shot at the Hawaii job this year, Lee was still a little stunned Wednesday that ASU has just landed him as its 28th head coach. Lee’s reaction post-Malzahn press conference was no different than most of the college football following public. Everybody was trying to make sense of how Malzahn wound up at Arkansas State, a school that won the Sun Belt title outright for the first time since joining the league.
Could Lee have imagined a year ago that hiring Malzahn was possible? Heck, a week ago did he envision pulling off what some national media were classifying as THE coaching hire of 2011?
“I could not, with who we are, who he is," Lee said of the possibility of hiring Malzahn. "He’s had the opportunity in a lot of different searches and probably could pick about any search he wants to get involved in. The thing we were able to sell here, it’s in Arkansas. We’ve got great people. We have a lot of things on the horizon.
“It’s something he can make go to another level.”
ASU, which is headed to the Jan. 8 GoDaddy.com Bowl, will take its financial support of the program to new heights in order to get a coach that can build on Freeze’s success in Jonesboro. Freeze, now at Ole Miss, was making less than $250,000 as the lowest-paid coach in FBS football, yet guided the Red Wolves to 10 wins in the regular season for the first time since 1975.
Malzahn, who was sold on the job after conversations with Freeze, is coming in to build on that success with a compensation package that will get a lot closer to his Auburn salary than anybody thought possible. Malzahn signed a five-year deal believed to be worth, at minimum, $800,000 annually. There’s also a multi-thousand square foot house in Ridge Pointe where he’ll share a property line with ASU head basketball coach John Brady.
“I told Dr. Lee to do whatever it took to make this hire possible,” ASU system president Chuck Welch said, noting the impact football success could have on the athletic department and campus at large.
Arkansas State, Lee and a number of boosters who significantly stepped up their financial support came through to make the job financially appealing to Malzahn and his family. But the move from the Southeastern Conference to Sun Belt, from defending national champion to first-time league champion, was about more than cash for Malzahn.
Building something at ASU was appealing. Malzahn, who put his signature on contract terms around 8:15 p.m. Tuesday, relished the chance to turn a program with little recent history of winning into a “Top 25 program year in and year out.”
Improbable? Yes. But not impossible, much like Malzahn’s career path to college coaching. He turned a successful high school career — and Springdale High team loaded with college prospects — into an offensive coordinator's spot at Arkansas. From there he seemingly took a step back to work at Tulsa for two years and was overseeing a record-setting national champion two years later.
Once again Malzahn seems to be headed off the beaten path. But, it’s what has worked for him.
“It makes sense to me. It may not to anybody else,” Malzahn said. “I’m not the traditional college coach. But it makes sense to me.”