If you close your eyes, you can almost hear the voice of Coach Taylor talking to the Dillon Panthers on the show “Friday Night Lights.” UCF head coach Gus Malzahn has more in common with Taylor than just the southern accent. Malzahn got his start in the profession as a longtime high school coach and is returning to his roots well within the heart of Big 12 country but this time with a different title.
“I never thought I’d be fired,” Malzahn says emphatically.
Malzahn wears a silky Cutter and Buck UCF polo and fitted golf pants tailored just above his black, gold and white Nike trainers. As UCF heads to the Big 12, a look backwards is important not only for the university, but the coach that made a name for himself in the SEC.
During an exclusive interview with a small group of national college football writers, Malzahn reflects on the period of time between being fired by Auburn in December 2020 and ultimately accepting the UCF position nearly two months later.
Following his abrupt dismissal from Auburn, Malzahn received interest from Power Five schools, including one prominent program, per sources. The longtime coach explains why he chose UCF over some of a more traditional blue-blood programs.
“I’m a real big person about fit,” Malzahn reflects. “[At] Auburn, when I was the O.C. [offensive coordinator], I loved it. I mean, I loved it.
“Well, this place fits me, too. This is like you’re kind of building everything. Everything is young and you can put your thumbprint on it. So, it fits me really well.”
Malzahn was planning to take at least one year off to work as a television analyst and travel with wife Kristi. The veteran coach had worked with Terry Mohajir at Arkansas State, and when he was hired as the new UCF athletic director Malzahn recalled that he was “at least gonna listen” to his old boss’ pitch about a possible move to Orlando, Fla.
A little more than two years later, Malzahn’s move to Florida does not have retirement vibes as UCF joins the Big 12. Yet, Malzahn was once on the opposing sideline during one of the most significant wins in UCF history.
Act I: UCF Tops Auburn in 2018 Peach Bowl. Gus Malzahn Is Hired as Knights Head Coach Nearly 3 Years Later.
It is New Year’s Day in 2018 and rare snow flurries fall in downtown Atlanta, Ga. On one sideline stands Scott Frost wearing a UCF dad hat for the last time. Frost and the majority of his coaching staff is returning to Nebraska, as the prodigal son returns home, but the father would eventually run out of patience in Lincoln despite the program’s aggressive recruitment of their former star quarterback.
On the opposing sideline stands Malzahn wearing a navy blue Auburn visor and matching zip-up. Soon-to-be UCF head coach Josh Heupel watched the Peach Bowl alongside then Knights athletic director Danny White from a luxury box at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“That was their Super Bowl, and I knew that it was going to be a tough deal,” Malzahn recalled. “They got after us and beat us by a touchdown.
“But I already kind of knew they were really good. They had like seven or eight guys that went to the league [and are] still playing. It didn’t surprise me that they were going to be that good. I was disappointed [that] we didn’t play better. That’s probably the best way to put it.”
Things would not go as planned for Frost or Malzahn in subsequent years. Frost would be the first of two straight UCF coaches to use Orlando as a stepping stone to move into a perceived nicer neighborhood with drastically different results.
A little more than three years after Auburn’s Peach Bowl loss, Malzahn would be fired and in a short time trade in his signature Tigers sweater vest for a UCF Tommy Bahama shirt. Frost went a disappointing 16-31 at Nebraska making it through just three games of the 2022 season before being fired.
It was Heupel’s departure to Tennessee after three seasons in Orlando that would open up the door for Malzahn’s move to Florida. Heupel would follow White’s move to Knoxville, and one other notable move came years later. UCF’s QB1 in the Peach Bowl McKenzie Milton joined Heupel’s Vols coaching staff this past offseason.
Malzahn took the reverse path of Frost coming to UCF after eight years at Auburn with his tenure in the Plains being about as high a profile college football job that exists. The coach spent close to a decade battling in the same state as Alabama’s Nick Saban, one of the best coaches in college football history. The bigger battle proved to be against Auburn boosters and administrators who determined the 103 victories were not enough before handing the coach a pink slip.
Like Frost would eventually experience, Malzahn knows the pressure of coaching at a college football legacy program. While in Orlando, Frost became the good cop to George O’Leary’s bad cop allowing the UCF athletic department to finally lean into its youth and innovation. A new fast-paced offense and flashy uniforms were not only approved but embraced by Frost.
Malzahn is not leading this same winless UCF program Frost took over in 2016, and to say there are no expectations as the Knights head into their inaugural season in the Big 12 would not be an accurate assessment. UCF is finally in a Power Five conference but with the move comes Power Five expectations. It is a challenging transition as UCF, Cincinnati, Houston and BYU join the Big 12 while not having access to the same financial resources in past years as the universities they will be facing.
Act II: Gus Malzahn on UCF vs. Auburn: ‘Two Completely Different Jobs. …There’s Not a Lot of Other Stuff [at UCF]’
Some have observed that Malzahn looks to have quite literally taken his move to Florida to heart. Malzahn traded his sweater vests for a rotation of floral pattern shirts and golf polos.
The veteran coach admits Auburn and UCF are “two completely different jobs.” Malzahn is quick to praise his time at Auburn, but the implication is clear that his role with the Knights has replaced stress with a feeling of being reinvigorated.
“What’s the best way to answer this?” Malzahn asks rhetorically while sounding like he is looking for a lifeline when comparing his former role at Auburn to UCF. “Yeah, it’s a different feel. That’s probably the best [way to describe the difference].
“It’s two different jobs. Two completely different jobs, okay? That’s probably the best way to answer it. But I really love what I’m doing. Coaching is fun. There’s not a lot of other stuff [at UCF].”
“…It’s just different. Completely different. It’s completely different. That’s the best way to put it. But I loved my time at Auburn.”
Act III: UCF Is Leaning on ‘Scattered, Smothered & Covered’ Recruiting Push in Atlanta as Part of Big 12 Future
“Ham and cheese omelet, scattered, smothered, covered, chunked, diced and after a big win I’d get a waffle,” Malzahn recalls his go-to Waffle House order at Auburn. “They had it waiting on me, man. I had my booth there and all that.”
Malzahn still talks like an SEC coach as he recalls his go-to Waffle House order. Life might be “completely different” at UCF, but the coach looks comfortable sitting in his old stomping grounds of downtown Atlanta on a warm May afternoon.
Not only did Malzahn make three SEC championship game appearances in Atlanta, but the area has consistently been a focal point for the coach in recruiting. These days, Malzahn admits to eating a lot more First Watch given the founder is a UCF alum.
The Knights are hoping Malzahn’s experience in the Deep South can help pluck some of these would-be SEC recruits into wearing black and gold as UCF moves into the Big 12. Weeks after our interview, Malzahn did just that by snagging four-star running back Stacy Gage who chose UCF over top SEC schools like Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Auburn and Arkansas, per Rivals.
Malzahn and his UCF coaching staff have a full day of activities planned on this particular trip to Atlanta including recruiting, booster meetings and an alumni event to conclude the night. Hours later, UCF would get a shoutout from Braves legend Dale Murphy at his aptly named Murph’s restaurant located in walking distance to Truist Park where the Knights hosted an event for local alumni.
Malzahn is eager to get back into Big 12 territory where he was a legendary high school coach as UCF enters the conference but views Georgia as an extension of the program’s Florida recruiting efforts noting the Knights plan to do an annual event in Atlanta.
“First of all, I’ve recruited this area for a long time,” Malzahn says of his connection to Atlanta. “I have a lot of connections. We’ve got six players from the Atlanta area right now. We’ve really focused on Florida and Georgia all the way up to Atlanta really as our main recruiting area.
“…We’re doing really well recruiting Atlanta right now, too. Going into the Big 12 has helped with that.”
Act IV: UCF Is Pushing for a More Dynamic Vertical Offense to Keep Pace in Big 12
The Knights’ exit from the AAC did not go quite as planned with UCF struggling to find consistency on their way to a 9-5 record. UCF had wins over Tulane and Cincinnati but also had puzzling losses to Navy as well as East Carolina. The season ended with a 17-point loss to Duke in the Military Bowl, a sharp contrast to UCF’s resounding victory over Florida in the Gasparilla Bowl one year earlier.
UCF’s challenge heading into the Big 12 is not only slowing down the potent offenses in the conferences but also putting up enough points to stay competitive. The Knights averaged 32.9 points per game last season ranking No. 31 in the country.
There is a segment of UCF fans frustrated with an offense that, at times, did not look as imaginative as past years under Frost and Heupel. To make the battle for public perception more challenging for Malzahn in Orlando, Tennessee led the country with 46.1 points per contest under Heupel.
Malzahn wrote a book about innovative offense (still available decades later on Amazon, by the way). He is among the coaches that have shaped the way college football offenses look across the country. Malzahn, Chip Kelly and the late Mike Leach are among the coaches who played a pivotal role in revamping offenses.
The challenge is most programs have implemented similar offenses creating more familiarity than differences when comparing schools. Malzahn admits the competitive advantage has shrunk since his early college coaching days, but the UCF coach still believes his offense can be successful.
“In 2009 and 2010, there was just a handful of programs playing fast and there was a big group that was trying to slow it down [for] health [reasons] and all that stuff,” Malzahn says on the challenges of offensive innovation now that opposing schools have adapted. “Now, everyone is playing fast to a certain point. And that’s just the new age of college football. It’s not near as big of [an] advantage as it used to be because more people do it.
“Defensive coordinators have adapted. They have their own version [of] no-huddle defenses. But it still can be an advantage, and it’s just kind of what you believe in. [It’s] who you are as a coach. That’s who I am as a coach, and I don’t know any other way.”
Malzahn’s tenure at UCF and the program’s ultimate success in the Big 12 will depend on this ability to lean on his core coaching principles while also adapting. Former UCF offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey left Orlando to join North Carolina over the offseason.
The Knights hired Darin Hinshaw to fill the offensive coordinator role. Hinshaw is a former UCF player whose coaching experience includes Kentucky and Tennessee. Malzahn identifies the offense becoming more dynamic vertically as the biggest change fans can expect with Hinshaw’s help.
“So, Darin Hinshaw, I brought him in really just to focus on pushing the ball down the field,” Malzahn described the potential offensive changes. “John Rhys-Plumlee is our quarterback. He’s phenomenal, but he hadn’t played quarterback in two years.
“So, we ran him a little bit more than we liked. He got banged up late. If he hadn’t of [gotten injured], I think it [would] have been different.
“So, really just brought Darin in, he’s been a coordinator at Kentucky, a coordinator in the SEC and done well, just [to] develop the quarterback position and then to push the ball down the field. Emphasis on the vertical passing game, and we’re going to stay true to who we are. “
Act V: ‘John Rhys-Plumlee Is Our Quarterback’ as UCF Heads Into Big 12
This offense will feature a familiar face under center as Malzahn spent the offseason doubling down on his commitment to John Rhys-Plumlee. This could help explain why playmaking quarterback Thomas Castellanos transferred from Orlando to Boston College over the offseason. Former backup quarterback Mikey Keene also moved on to Fresno State.
Malzahn views Plumlee as a new version of dual-threat quarterback Nick Marshall who thrived in the coach’s offense at Auburn. For context, Marshall threw for 2,532 yards, 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions while completing 60.8% of his passes during his 13 appearances for the Tigers in 2014. Just as impressive was his 153 carries for 798 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground during this same season.
“Yeah, John Rhys is our quarterback,” Malzahn emphatically states when asked about a potential quarterback competition. “I had a quarterback named Nick Marshall back in the day [at Auburn], there’s a lot of similarities, I mean, a whole lot of similarities. He can flat out throw it. He had a great spring.
“Like I said, he played receiver two years [at Ole Miss], and he was learning our offense as he went, probably the first three or four games, then it started clicking and we were learning him, too.”
Rhys-Plumlee put up impressive statistics during his first season at UCF throwing for 2,586 yards, 14 touchdowns and eight interceptions while completing 63% of his passes. The quarterback’s rushing statistics look similar to a dynamic running back notching 159 carries for 862 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground in 2022.
Despite the gaudy numbers, there were times when UCF’s offense stalled in key situations. Malzahn is hopeful that improved health for Plumlee combined with an added emphasis on verticality can help take the Knights offense to new heights.
Act VI: UCF Desires to Be the Future of College Football in the Sport’s Ever-Changing Landscape
If UCF had a preferred emoji, it would be a rocket ship which you may have seen hit peak popularity during the brief meme stock era (RIP GameStop) throughout the pandemic. To quote the great philosopher Rick Ross, the Knights are attempting to “build a dream, with elevators in it.” There is no time like the present as UCF heads into the Big 12 and coincidentally the College Football Playoff expands to 12 teams beginning in the 2024 season.
The university has leaned into its history with NASA as the program celebrates their roots by annually dropping the highly-anticipated space uniforms complete with the throwback Citronauts logo. Signage around the UCF college football facility reads “the future of college football.”
With the sport so quickly shifting, it is challenging to know what this future may be, and the Big 12 finds itself firmly in expansion rumors. With the Pac-12 and ACC facing unrest with its member schools, there is a wide-open path to the Big 12 emerging as the third conference behind the SEC and Big Ten.
The Big 12 would be wise to be proactive rather than reactive when it comes to expansion. The conference has been linked to a number of schools as potential new additions including Colorado, Memphis, Connecticut, Utah, Arizona and Arizona State.
These decisions pose their own challenges given the Big 12 could wait long enough to pry away unhappy Pac-12 and ACC schools rather than adding Memphis or Connecticut. However the Big 12 ultimately takes shape, Malzahn is confident that UCF “feels like the future” and will continue to be an appealing destination for top recruits.
“We’ve got 72,000 students. We’re in Orlando where the world vacations,” Malzahn shifts into recruiting mode. “There’s no NFL team. Everything is set up.
“They played really good football way before I got there. Now, that we’re in the Big 12, we’re right in the center of the state which is as good a place as any place in the country to recruit.
“It’s set up. It’s set up for success. I think we’re one of those programs that’s trending upward. It’s pretty exciting.”
As communication expert Marshall McLuhan popularized “the medium is the message.” UCF continues to shape its campus to look more like a resort and less like a traditional university. The university has plans to build a lazy river as part of the school’s athletics’ village.
“We have a very unique campus,” Malzahn notes. “It’s really a different feel than any place I’ve ever been. It just feels young. It feels like the future. Our stadium’s pretty cool, too.”
Act VII: UCF Faces One of the Most Challenging Schedules in Program History as the Knights Enter Big 12
Malzahn works a room like a Fortune 500 CEO, something lacking from his UCF predecessors. If anyone has the skillset necessary to help a program transition to a bigger conference, it is Malzahn. But there are no stock prices in college football, just wins and losses. CEO skills aside, Malzahn’s legacy at UCF will be based on the standings.
Not only does UCF begin Big 12 conference play this fall, the Knights also head to Boise State for a showdown on the blue turf during the second week of the season. Mohajir admitted in Atlanta that the Knights would not mind a do-over on scheduling the Broncos given the commitment was made while UCF was in the AAC. UCF’s upcoming Big 12 schedule has a number of challenging opponents including Oklahoma, Baylor, Kansas State, West Virginia and Oklahoma State.
Malzahn makes it clear that UCF as conference championship aspirations during the program’s first year in the Big 12 but is candid about the roadblocks ahead.
“This is a championship program. It’s going to be extremely tough we know that, but our goal is to win the championship,” Malzahn states on transition to the Big 12. “It’ll be tough, but that’s the way we’re recruiting. I’d say we’ve got some really good players. I think we’ve got a good coaching staff, too.
“We’ll just have to bring our lunch every week, but we do have a chance. We have the talent to at least say we have a chance, and I think that’s big.”
One offseason move that has flown under the radar is UCF hiring former Charlotte head coach Will Healy as an assistant head coach and offensive analyst. After leading Charlotte to its first bowl game and winning season in 2019, Healy became one of the rising coaches in college football popularizing “Club Lit” with the 49ers.
In addition to early success at Charlotte, Healy previously orchestrated a significant turnaround at Austin Peay. Unofficially, Healy will operate a bit like Malzahn’s chief of staff, but all signs point to the former Charlotte coach having plenty of offensive input.
Act VIII: ‘That’s My Job.’ Gus Malzahn Wants UCF to Get Back to Being an Early Factor in the NFL Draft.
The pathway to UCF having long-term success in the Big 12 is no secret: recruiting, recruiting and more recruiting. The Knights are on their way to potentially having its second straight top-50 recruiting class in 2024, but this number will need to get closer to top-25 status for UCF to be able to have sustained success as the level of competition increases.
UCF has a strong history of sending players to the NFL with notable recent pros including Gabe Davis, Shaquill Griffin, Blake Bortles, Tre’Quan Smith, Breshad Perriman and Trysten Hill among others. As the NFL draft has moved into a three-day version of Woodstock for sports nerds, UCF players have not heard their names called quite as often during the first two nights in recent years.
Malzahn takes this as a challenge candidly admitting “that’s my job” while adding that it is an important goal to get UCF back on the NFL stage during opening night of the draft.
“That’s recruiting and winning,” Malzahn says of UCF being a first-round factor during the NFL draft. “It all works together. That’s my job. I’ve got to get our program where the first night we got some of our guys in the conversation. It’s a place that I feel like [will happen].
“I will say that next year we’ll have a chance to be pretty relevant in the draft. That’s always important.”
Weeks later, Malzahn witnessed UCF basketball achieve the program’s first ever top-10 NBA draft pick as the Jazz selected Taylor Hendricks at No. 9. As UCF launches into the Big 12, Malzahn labels Plumlee, former Alabama receiver Javon Baker, ex-Auburn wideout Kobe Hudson, running back RJ Harvey and defensive tackle Ricky Barber among the top NFL prospects on the Knights roster.
Getting to Sundays starts with successful Saturdays as UCF hopes the long awaited future might just be now. Act IX is to be determined.
is a sports and news contributor based in Atlanta, Georgia. Jonathan has had exclusive interviews with a number of the top athletes in the world. He graduated from UCF with a Master of Sport Business Management degree and has worked inside the industry in a variety of capacities in the sports world. Follow him on Twitter @JonDAdams.