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Gus Malzahn to UCF doesn’t make sense for either side

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Neither the coach nor the school really needs one another. That tends to be a problem.

Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports. Banner Society Illustration.

Unless there’s a raw, wide streak of masochism inside Malzahn’s human nature we aren’t aware of, I’m not sure how Gus Malzahn to Central Florida is good for anyone.

A man $21 million richer, fresh from the daily hell of trying to manage a program relegated to serving as the in-state foil to the greatest run in college football history by its greatest head coach, just signed up for another fool’s errand: Helping UCF football achieve Power 5 membership, a level of legitimacy currently impossible to attain.

If you’re Malzahn, I’d tell you to stop coaching and just go live life for a while. But you won’t, and you can’t. If youth is wasted on the young, college football buyouts are wasted exclusively on men too miserable to see the happiness the rest of us would find with that kind of funding.

If you’re UCF, congrats on the new spoiler for your jet ski. You didn’t need one, but yes, technically it was available for purchase. It will net you nothing other than the rest of us being forced to notice it, which is why you’re on a jet ski in the first place.

UCF could’ve hired the next Malzahn instead of this one

The 55-year-old Malzahn, 68-35 at Auburn, signed a five-year, $11 million contract with UCF. It’s a reasonable price tag for the Knights and a bargain compared to Houston paying Dana Holgorsen $20 million over the same timespan.

But in buying a proven name like Malzahn, UCF is still overspending ... if you believe in UCF’s potential and attributes as much as I do. Whatever it is you think you’re getting in Malzahn was available on the market at a lower cost and at a younger age. Even if budget isn’t a concern, you can’t buy time: Youth is considered an attribute in coaching circles when it comes to the aggressive amount of recruiting hours necessary to win big.

Do you want a renowned play-caller? Sure seems like you could’ve lured Tony Elliott out of Clemson, considering your I-4 rival hired away Jeff Scott from the same position at the same program a year ago. Do you want a play-caller specific to Malzahn’s style (although I’m not sure why)? Go get 37-year-old Rhett Lashlee from Miami. The dude is literally a former Malzahn quarterback and offensive coordinator.

What is it exactly that makes Malzahn worth a base price of $2 million a year in Orlando? By the way, if you believe UCF is a job built to win, you can get ready for that number to go up once Malzahn wins the conference and takes the Knights to a New Year’s Six bowl. And that’s a feat you paid Scott Frost and Josh Heupel less to do when it meant a lot more to your new-money fan base, who now expects playoff bids.

Coaches don’t earn conference invitations

There’s a lot of potential change on the horizon for this sport (TV contracts in the distance and NIL legislation in the foreground) causing realignment chatter to restart. A popular theory is that Malzahn could “help” UCF become the next Utah or TCU, two programs that jumped to the Power 5 in the last round of realignment because of an apocryphal theory that the respective coaching tenures of Kyle Whittingham and Gary Patterson somehow pushed those programs into consideration.

That’s nonsense. Those two coaches are certainly textbook examples of how to successfully guide a program from the Group of Five to the Power 5, but they never once factored into the reason why those schools got promoted. Do you know who was the head coach of Rutgers when they were annexed by the Big Ten? Kyle Flood. When West Virginia was invited to the Big 12, first-year head coach Dana Holgorsen had just survived a scandalous coup d’etat by former head coach Bill Stewart.

Conferences and their TV partners don’t care about who the current coach of a program is. The price of admission is if you can grow DMA size and expand recruiting footprints for existing members, and the requirements for entry are measured by athletic budgets, facilities, and some degree of lip service about academics.

If anything, a successful Gus Malzahn at UCF might do more to hurt the Knights’ chances with a conference like the Big 12. That conference teased expansion in 2016 and then got spooked at the last minute, in part because existing members didn’t think bringing in talent-laden UCF or Cincinnati made much sense for them, let alone losing recruits in the state of Texas to a program like Houston or SMU.

Malzahn could’ve waited a year for a Power 5 job, or just been really rich.

Just for fun, let’s cobble up a quick list of potential P5 openings after the 2021 season: USC, Nebraska, Virginia Tech, Purdue, Michigan, Kansas. Now let’s maybe add a retirement at either Duke, Iowa, or TCU. That’s certainly enough to start a cycle where Gus Malzahn, Winningest Head Coach Versus Nick Saban, is hired for either one of those P5 gigs or another one that opens in the cycle.

Is UCF a better job than Purdue or Kansas, or even Virginia Tech or Nebraska? Again — I believe it is, so it’s hard to argue against anyone taking the job… except Gus Fricking Malzahn.

What is the value proposition for Malzahn, five years from 60, with SEC championships and a national title appearance, to work at the G5’s best job? Beating some crestfallen SEC program in a New Year’s Six bowl game? That’s an inarguable step down for the man since he literally stood on the other side of the field for that event.

Does Malzahn hope to prove something with AAC titles he hasn’t or couldn’t at Auburn? Does he think he can engineer the third act of his career that ends with one more national title run? That’s not possible at UCF. They’re not in the Power 5. UCF went undefeated and was still excluded from the Playoff. Then they beat Auburn! We just talked about this.

Malzahn is calling the plays

If I had to form an educated guess, I think Malzahn took UCF because it was the best job available that was willing to let him call plays on offense without interference. He’s already said he’ll be calling the plays on offense for the Knights, an afterthought when Malzahn was considered an offensive wizard but a point of contention when Auburn stayed relevant because of Kevin Steele’s defenses, not the magic of Malzahn’s scheme.

Two years ago a Power 5 defensive coordinator said the worst thing that can happen to a play-caller on offense — and thus the best thing for an opposing defensive coach — is to be called a “genius” at any point in his career. He was actually talking about Chip Kelly, but I think it’s worth mentioning here:

“They freeze. They stop evolving, they stop experimenting. Something has worked well enough for the world outside of our industry to think you’re something special. It rots your brain. You start thinking about how personnel should adapt to you, because you’re a genius, instead of how you should actually coach the personnel. Once you start doing that we’re gonna figure you out. You’re gonna do the same things because they got you success, but football is a cycle. We’ll get you,” the defensive coordinator said.

If I’m wrong about all this, fine: UCF has a decorated veteran of the SEC poised to capitalize on one of the most talented states in the sport at a school aggressively invested in growing football. If I’m right, college football’s loudest usurper has bought magic beans to feed their naked ambition, only producing a man coming to terms with his own talent and the pains of time. UCF, prone to acting like they were born yesterday, struggles with that last part.