JONESBORO — Gus Malzahn donned an Arkansas State visor as he stepped to the podium for his first remarks as the university’s head football coach.
“Dean, pretty good job,” Malzahn told ASU Director of Athletics Dr. Dean Lee. “This thing fits. Right off the bat, I’ve got the visor working.”
Describing ASU as the right fit for him and his family, Malzahn became the Red Wolves’ 28th head football coach Wednesday. He was greeted by an enthusiastic crowd estimated at 800, a gathering so large that it packed the Convocation Center auditorium and overflowed into one of the facility’s banquet rooms.
Malzahn, 46, became one of the nation’s most visible assistant coaches during three years as offensive coordinator at Auburn. He won the 2010 Frank Broyles Award, given annually to the nation’s top assistant coach, and helped the Tigers win the national championship last season.
Receiving a standing ovation when he walked on stage, when he was introduced at the press conference and later during halftime of ASU’s basketball game against Seattle University, Malzahn described a vision of Sun Belt Conference championships and Top 25 rankings.
“Like I said to the team. I told the team, buckle up because we’re fixing to take this thing to the next level,” Malzahn said. “I’m going to challenge the fans, whether you’ve been an Arkansas State fan in the past, whether you are now or you want to be, come on board because we’re fixing to take this thing to the next level.”
Malzahn accepted a 5-year contract to become ASU’s head coach. Lee declined to reveal Malzahn’s compensation, which has been reported as high as $850,000, other than to say he will be the highest-paid coach in the Sun Belt.
ASU’s search began Dec. 5 when Hugh Freeze left to become head coach at the University of Mississippi after leading the Red Wolves to a 10-2 record and the Sun Belt title in his only year as head coach. Lee had called Malzahn as a reference on Freeze last year and had anticipated calling him in a similar capacity again this year.
Their conversation took an unexpected turn for Lee when Malzahn called last Thursday.
“I was going to call him this year for sure at some point as I got my list narrowed down and say, ‘Just tell me about this candidate, just tell me about that candidate,’” Lee said. “So when he called that was my first thought process, and after I asked him if he was ready to come back to Arkansas and he hesitated, that was all the nibble I needed to go on the attack and try to close the deal.”
Lee drove to Auburn, Ala., on Saturday to meet with Malzahn and his wife, Kristi. The coach and the university reached an agreement on a contract Tuesday evening, ASU System President Dr. Chuck Welch said.
“He’s one of these people where the driving factor isn’t the compensation package,” Welch said. “It was the right fit. We did not have big arguments or big disagreements.”
Malzahn, whose pay at Auburn was reportedly $1.3 million, has been linked to several other openings over the last two years. He turned down a chance to become Vanderbilt’s head coach last year, and was a candidate at North Carolina and Kansas this year.
“He’s had the opportunity to be in a lot of different searches and probably can pick about any search he wants to get involved in,” Lee said. “But I think the things we were able to sell here is it is in Arkansas and we’ve got great people. We’ve got a lot of things on the horizon, and it’s something that he can make go to another level.”
Asked about the timing of his move, Malzahn said he isn’t the traditional college coach after spending 15 years in the Arkansas high school ranks.
“I wanted to be a head coach, and when you have a chance to be a head coach, you have to find the right fit and you have to find the right time,” Malzahn said. “Like I said, this is the right fit and the right time. I want to tell you this, too — I’m an Arkansas guy. There’s something to coming back home.”
Malzahn is a Fort Smith native and graduate of Henderson State, where he took a summer class taught by Lee. He led three state championship teams and took seven teams to the state finals while serving as head coach at Hughes, Shiloh Christian and Springdale.
Arkansas hired Malzahn as offensive coordinator in 2006. The following two seasons he was at Tulsa, helping the Golden Hurricane lead the nation in total offense both years, and then moved to Auburn in 2009.
With Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton at quarterback, Auburn set nine school records while running Malzahn’s scheme in 2010. The Tigers averaged nearly 499 yards and better than 41 points per game during their national championship season.
Considered an innovative offensive coach, Malzahn runs a high-speed spread attack. The transition from Freeze’s hurry-up system should be easy, he said.
“I love to play fast-paced football. I think that’s a big advantage in college football,” Malzahn said. “We’re bringing a system that is proven, that players like to play in it, and it’s also proven that you can set records and accomplish goals.”
Malzahn said he will serve as Auburn’s offensive coordinator for the Dec. 31 Chick-fil-A Bowl, adding that it won’t deter what he does for ASU.
The Red Wolves are preparing to play Northern Illinois in the Jan. 8 GoDaddy.com Bowl in Mobile, Ala. Malzahn said he plans to be on the sideline for that game, but has not decided what his involvement will be. Running backs coach David Gunn has been serving as ASU’s interim coach.
The five assistants remaining from Freeze’s coaching staff will be considered for staff positions, Malzahn said.
“I got a chance to meet the team and visit with them, and I said a few things,” Malzahn said. “One of them was I’m here to win championships. I sit there and look at the foundation that Coach (Steve) Roberts and Coach Freeze have laid, and those guys are very good friends of mine. They’ve done a great job of getting to this point. I sit there and look at this program, and this is a program on the rise.”