AUBURN, Ala. — Welcome home, Gus.
That was Pat Sullivan’s pledge, verbatim. That was Jay Gogue’s and Jay Jacobs’ firm-handed statement. And that sums up just about the entire Auburn community’s heartfelt feelings toward the man so instrumental to arguably its beloved football program’s greatest moment.
Gus Malzahn, wearing a black suit, white shirt and orange tie with his signature black-framed glasses (no visor, not yet), opened his address to hundreds of reporters and university supporters before him at the Auburn Athletic Complex Rane Room with the battle cry of two oh-so-familiar words.
“I’m just tickled to death. It’s a true honor for me to be the head coach of the Auburn Tigers,” said Malzahn, hired Tuesday to guide the football team’s rebuilding effort. “I spent three years here, and I can honestly say it was the three best years of our lives, for my family and myself.
“I feel connected, forever, to be an Auburn man with an Auburn family.”
Malzahn, 47, was the Tigers’ offensive coordinator from 2009-11, the first three years of his head coaching predecessor Gene Chizik’s tenure. Together, Chizik, Malzahn, quarterback Cam Newton and the Tigers became college’s football national champions in 2010.
Malzahn was part of three bowl victories on Chizik’s staff: the 2010 Outback Bowl, the 2011 BCS National Championship and 2011 Chick-Fil-A Bowl.
Malzahn left after last season to pursue his first head coaching opportunity at Arkansas State. He led the Red Wolves to a 9-3 record and Sun Belt Conference championship.
Meanwhile, Auburn went the other direction. The Tigers were 3-9 and went winless in the SEC for the first time in 32 years, leading to Chizik’s firing Nov. 25.
“One of the great Auburn traditions is to welcome family home and to make them feel like it’s home,” Auburn Alumni Association president Bill Stone said. “That’s real easy tonight, because it’s more like a family reunion.”
The four-man search committee of athletic director Jacobs, former Heisman winners Sullivan and Bo Jackson and former fullback/successful businessman Mac Crawford needed nine days to bring Malzahn home, a decision approved Tuesday by university president Gogue.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day. You’ve got to have patience,” Jackson said. “He’s facing an empty lot. He’s got to go move dirt, lay a foundation, and start to rebuild a house,” Jackson said. “Gus will rebuild this house the best way he sees fit.”
Jacobs announced Malzahn’s contract lasts five years, worth $2.3 million per season. That nearly triples Malzahn’s 2012 salary of $859,610 at Arkansas State, and is slightly higher than Chizik’s first-year pay when brought in from Iowa State for the 2009 season.
Sullivan, the committee’s spokesman, was adamant as to why the committee chose Malzahn over reported candidates such as Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, Louisville coach Charlie Strong, TCU coach Gary Patterson and former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino.
“We wanted to find a coach with high character,” Sullivan said. “We wanted someone with great leadership abilities, that could attract a staff that would recruit and develop young men in all areas of their life, spiritually and academically as well as athletically.”
Malzahn’s continuity with the program – he recruited and fostered a vast majority of the current roster, filled with young players – doesn’t hurt, either. He will quickly reinstall his patented hurry-up, no-huddle offense which shattered school records in 2010 but was replaced by an ineffective pro-style attack in 2012.
“We know we have a lot of work coming back from a pro style into his style of offense,” sophomore tight end C.J. Uzomah said. “But I feel like it should be a smooth transition.”
Malzahn had a short team meeting at the football facilities before his official welcome, saying hello to many familiar faces.
“He’s an amazing man,” junior defensive end Nosa Eguae said. “He stands for everything Jay Jacobs and that whole committee was really looking for. When I heard the news, I knew exactly Coach Malzahn’s expectations, and it’s for greatness.”
The good cheer extended to future Tigers, as well. There has been much consternation surrounding the incoming recruits, who make up one of the nation’s highest-rated classes of 2013.
“I think it’s great,” Auburn High School five-star linebacker Reuben Foster, the Tigers’ top verbal commit, told AuburnUndercover.com. “I don’t know (Malzahn) but I’m looking forward to meeting him and building a relationship with him. I’m definitely still committed to Auburn.”
Defensive tackle Dee Liner, linebacker Cameron Toney, cornerback Kamryn Melton and safety Lemond Johnson also voiced their support of Malzahn’s hire to the web site. This is notable, considering they’re each defenders and Malzahn’s reputation is firmly on the offensive side of the ball.
Carver-Montgomery four-star quarterback Jeremy Johnson, who during football season went on record as saying he’d open his recruitment if and when Chizik was fired, tweeted simply, “War Eagle!!!!!!!!”
In the past 83 years, Auburn has had 10 different head coaches. Only two had never been a head coach at the college level before – Ralph “Shug” Jordan and Doug Barfield – while the other 8 had at least three years of head coaching experience before guiding the Tigers.