The Strange Case for Appreciating Gus Malzahn


It’s difficult for A-State football fans to like Gus Malzahn as he smirked through his Auburn press conference.

He could have expressed more appreciation for the school that granted him his first head-coaching job.

He could have acknowledged the promises he broke and the damage he did to an already fragile fan psyche.

He could have scoffed with less disdain when asked if he’d coach in the Bowl.

Instead, he called Auburn his “homecoming” and referred to his previous tenure there as “the three happiest years of my life.”

What’s to like?

Gus Malzahn Goes To Auburn

AP Photo/, Julie Bennett

Like him or not, there’s no disputing that Gus Malzahn’s abbreviated stay at A-State bore a number of positives. While we didn’t realize until too late that Next Level meant “Next Level for Gus,” he did manage to achieve some remarkable things for the Red Wolves football program.

1.    Malzahn Cast a National Spotlight on A-State. Even though Hugh Freeze delivered a 10-2* record, he did so quietly. Too quietly. You rarely saw Freeze anywhere, let alone on ESPN or promoting the school. By contrast, Malzahn worked hard to keep A-State in the news, from initiating A-State Ambush, to challenging the Hogs to a game, to appearing at seemingly every Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce in the state.

2.    Malzahn Can Coach. The Red Wolves were successful on the gridiron last year. But this year’s team, after a loss of several key seniors, opened the season with several question marks. After a slow start and a disappointing loss to Western Kentucky, Malzahn’s offense finally took hold. A second consecutive Sun Belt Championship and a return to the Bowl followed. Gus Malzahn, for all his faults, is no Ray Perkins.

3.    Malzahn Made Us Visible to Recruits. Starpower has a great affect on recruits. Even though A-State will likely lose some of the highly skilled players Malzahn recruited this year, many will stay.

4.    Malzahn Proved to A-State that Greatness is Financially Attainable. Before Malzahn, A-State was the Scrooge McDuck of college football, gingerly handing pennies to coaching talent and refusing to finance the facilities necessary to make the program competitive. Not only did A-State find the financing and the courage to land Gus Malzahn, his hire inspired the university to invest in a $23M football facility that will be constructed despite Malzahn’s inglorious defection.

5.    Malzahn Made Arkansas Believe in A-State.  This year, A-State enjoyed record attendance at the newly re-named Liberty Bank Stadium. The Red Wolves appeared on ESPN and its numerous affiliates on several occasions. The “Should A-State play the University of Arkansas?” debate received a new burst of energy. Today, there is a new pride in Red Wolves football that hadn’t existed before. Malzahn doesn’t deserve all the credit, but he was an active ingredient to the formula.

None of that exonerates Gus Malzahn for promising to follow through on his commitment to A-State only to abandon the team less than a year later. His legacy will rest in the same dark corner as Ray Perkins and (yes) Hugh Freeze. But you can at least make a case for Gus Malzahn’s contribution to A-State.

You don’t have to like it.

* A-State finished the year 10-3 after a loss at the Bowl, which was coached by David Gunn.

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