Meet the new Gus ... same as the old Gus?
No one but the most loyal travelers on the Gus Bus needed additional confirmation that it was past time for Arthur Gustav Malzahn and Auburn football to go their separate ways. Malzahn provided it Monday anyway in one of the more stunning performances of his career.
Seriously. When was the last time he sounded that caffeinated about Auburn football?
A lot of Gus-ologists figured he would spend the next season (at least) in Scrooge McDuck mode, counting his mountain of Auburn buyout money, maybe splurging on a new ping-pong table. He shocked us not just by taking the UCF job but by embracing it like a new shipment of Double Bubble.
At his introductory press conference, he called UCF one of the sport's top 20 coaching jobs, "the program of the future in college football." He predicted, "I truly believe we'll be in the Final Four in a short period of time." As in College Football Closed-Shop Playoff semifinals. He beat the drum for the Knights the way he used to pound the bongos on the sideline for the hurry-up no-huddle offense after the latest in a fusillade of first downs.
As Twitter is my witness, Malzahn even knelt, bowed his head and was "knighted" by the UCF mascot, Knightro. The coach who's never been accused of possessing an electric personality lit up that room and the feed on Zoom. In a suit and tie at a podium, maybe for the first time since he arrived on our radar as a high school innovator turned SEC offensive coordinator at Arkansas, he delivered a sonic "Boom!"
This was Gus reinvigorated, as if driven to be more than an occasional thorn in Nick Saban's side. This was Gus reinvented, as if by Disney's Imagineers.
Malzahn did everything but take partial credit for UCF's 2017 Colley Matrix national championship. Which he deserves, both for beating that season's CFB Playoff champ in the Iron Bowl and losing to Central Florida in the Peach Bowl. He allowed the Knights to finish unbeaten while preventing Alabama from doing the same.
It's almost as if Auburn firing Malzahn lit a fire under him that not even paying him generational wealth to not coach could quench. Can Auburn rehire Steven Leath and fire him again for that one-sided 2017 contract? The lack of mitigation in that deal means Malzahn still receives every penny of his $21.45 million Auburn buyout while pocketing $11.5 million over five years from UCF - not including incentives.
If he's truly burning to coach again and prove himself again despite that bank, more power to him. As he said Monday, "I've always got a chip on my shoulder and something to prove."
He certainly does now. Auburn was justified in letting him go after too many unsatisfying seasons because he long ago stopped being good at the things he was supposed to be good at. Devising an offense. Calling plays. Combining the sizzle of playbook gadgetry with the steak of a punishing downhill running game.
Hopefully for him and his new employer, Malzahn found time during the eight weeks he had "to reflect and refresh" to relocate and re-read the book he wrote on the Hurry Up No Huddle. Somewhere along the way on the Plains, not long after his epic 2013 debut season, he lost it. While even Saban himself was discovering the need for speed and welcoming a run-first, dual-threat quarterback in Jalen Hurts - before airing it out with Tua and the Joker - Malzahn drifted from his most successful roots. The declining offensive numbers and disappointing overall record were a direct reflection.
While his energy and delivery Monday were refreshing, Malzahn has work to do to make good on some promises we've heard before, like the one to bring his call sheet out of retirement for good.
"I'll call plays the rest of my career," he vowed. "That's what I'm good at. That's what got me here."
Correction: That's what he was good at. If he can recapture that sorcery in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom, UCF just may block and tackle and smoke and mirror its way into a legitimate playoff discussion one day. Of course, that day won't come until the playoff expands to eight and mandates a Group of Five representative.
Until then, here's hoping the new Gus is the same as the old Gus, the one who pushed the offensive envelope, directing Cam Newton to one national title and Nick Marshall to the brink of another. That Gus will be worth watching, that Bus worth riding to the end.