Decision day for Malzahn
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All is quiet on the West End front, as Vanderbilt and their top football coach candidate, Gus Malzahn, return to their respective corners to gather their final thoughts.
For both parties, the next 24 hours may determine their respective futures -- futures that will either be shared, or compared, for decades to come.
On Thursday, Malzahn, Auburn's much celebrated offensive coordinator, was officially offered the head coaching position at Vanderbilt. It was a move that shocked virtually everyone who was not a subscriber to VandySports.com. In fact most of the day Friday was spent by VandySports.com publishers in hastily-prepared live interviews all across the country, with reporters trying to wrap their respective head around the happening that seems almost too perfect to be real.
Vanderbilt, the eternal butt of every football joke, is within hours of pulling off the most unlikely of all coaching coups. And they did it with virtually no one -- including Auburn -- even knowing it was happening.
In fact, while Malzahn was accepting the Frank Broyles Award for the top offensive coordinator in college football -- wearing a black suit and gold tie, no less -- only a literal handful of people on the planet knew what was likely going through his mind. As he thanked his Auburn players on live television, Malzahn was actually just one three-letter word away from taking his famously successful system five hours and 19 minutes up I-65 to Music City.
That word: Yes.
And that's where everything stands tonight. Malzahn, having made his intentions known for the first time to his Auburn boss, head coach Gene Chizik, and Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs, now has the ball squarely in his hands.
No matter what Malzahn's decision ends up being, there can now be no doubt that the SEC's Charlie Brown of football has made the boldest of moves to become a competitive player in the toughest football conference in America. Vanderbilt's list of finalists for the job is as solid and respected as they've ever had to pick from. Just one week ago, Vanderbilt fans and following media would have evaluated, and immediately accepted, its new leader and moved forward.
Stanford's Greg Roman, Michigan State's Don Treadwell, and Maryland's James Franklin are each stellar head coach options that would certainly appear to be a perfect fit at VU. Should Malzahn bail at the last second, one of them -- probably Franklin -- will get the job. And if so, he will likely do a great job.
But fair or not, it won't be big news. At least not compared to the kind of Shock and Awe that the hiring of Malzahn would cause.
And that is precisely the plan. After standing in a nearly-empty Vanderbilt Stadium for the Commodores' pathetic season-ending loss to Wake Forest, Vanderbilt had finally seen, and had, enough. Vanderbilt needed more than just a great coach. It needed to shake things up. It needed to make a statement that no one would miss.
In a league of coaching largess unseen in the sheer modern history of sport, you don't get front page news with a third page hiring. And clearly, this time, Vanderbilt decided to go for broke and play the game like the big boys.
They did it in baseball, and got perhaps the most respected young baseball mind in the NCAA in Tim Corbin. They did it in basketball, and got Kevin Stallings, who is unanimously respected as one of the sharpest Xs and Os guys in hoops.
Now, it was football's turn. And boy, did they ever go for it.
Should Vanderbilt thread the eye of the needle tomorrow, the hiring of perhaps the single most talked about offensive mind of the last decade would not just make waves. It would make a tidal wave. No, make that a monsoon. You simply cannot overstate how big this would be for Vanderbilt football.
They just might need to get a few more phones over in Eric Jones' office. For those who don't yet know, he's the person who heads up Vanderbilt's quaint, homey ticket office. It won't be so quaint come Monday morning, if there's a press conference scheduled with Gus as the guest of honor.
This is also a big statement for Malzahn. Truth is, he pursued Vanderbilt at least as much as Vanderbilt pursued him. He wants to be a head coach, and he thinks he's ready. No, he knows it. And like Corbin, like Stallings, when you tell him he can't do it, it's like telling him his successes to this point really aren't so much because of him, but because of his environment.
Some people, perhaps most people, don't seek out challenges. They look for the easy road, the easiest road. But not everyone. Not Corbin. Not Stallings.
In November 2007, while the offensive coordinator at Tulsa, Malzahn interviewed for the Arkansas head coaching position that vacated when Houston Nutt left for Ole Miss. He didn't get that job.
Last year, when Derek Dooley left Louisiana Tech for Tennessee, the Cajuns called Malzahn. But according to sources in Louisiana, it was Malzahn, not LaTech, who called first. Word has been that Chizik was none too pleased with the move, and Malzahn pulled out of the race only because of pressure inside the Auburn staff.
This time, it appears Malzahn took matters into his own hands. When Malzahn was in Nashville, interviewing with Vanderbilt this past Wednesday, word is that no one -- and I mean no one -- in Auburn had a clue. That wasn't Vanderbilt's doing, it was Malzahn's.
Perhaps there is a way Malzahn could find a way to make nice with the Tigers brass and return to the way things were. But how? Unless Chizik is willing to put another desk in his office, Malzahn's upward mobility has hit the glass ceiling. And clearly, they cannot match the money Vanderbilt has committed to bring him to Nashville.
There is no question Malzahn was a hot target for the Commodores from Day 1, but he was not as well known as other candidates on their long list. But all it took was one face to face, and two things were immediately clear:
1. This guy is for real, and,
2. This guy wants the job.
Will he take it? Stranger things have happened. But, honestly, not many.
Of course, money talks, and Vanderbilt knew they wouldn't even get into the game with Malzahn without accessing their deep pockets. But so what? The school has already made both Corbin and Stallings among the best paid coaches in their profession. The plan worked for them, why not football?
And how much is it costing Vanderbilt in ticket, concession and parking income to play in front of a half-full stadium? If Malzahn can pack Vanderbilt Stadium, he'll make up his salary post haste.
Why not, indeed. Whether you believe the $3 million figure bantered about or not (and for the record, I don't), there is absolutely no question that Vice Chancellor David Williams and Chancellor Nick Zeppos decided early on that it made zero sense to go after Malzahn unless they were willing to pony up the cash.
With all due respect to VU's other finalists, Malzahn was going to get the money from someone in the next year anyway, so it may as well be Vandy. It was time to do something bold, something big, something that would not only bring a fresh mind to campus but a renewed spirit.
And make no mistake about it, the decision to go pick Malzahn is a massive risk. Should the school put all its cards on the table so publicly, and be told thanks but no thanks, that would be a tough act for Coach Franklin to follow. Fair or not, it is what it is.
And faced with the down side, VU's leaders finally simply said, so what? What do we have to lose, really?
And look at what we have to win.
A change of culture. That's what Williams promised the Vanderbilt athletics staff when the search began. Believe it, he asked, because it's reality.
They won't get there overnight, even with Malzahn at the helm, but Malzahn's arrival would absolutely put everyone on notice. Williams has fully convinced everyone that Vanderbilt is finished being every SEC team's Homecoming punching bag.
The clock ticks to midnight. Or perhaps it's dawn. Should Malzahn take his one last step, on the path it seems he set for himself, all -- and I mean all -- eyes will turn to Dudley Field for the first time in, well, a very, very long time.
And the Boy Wonder, the guy who literally wrote the book on the modern day offense, will have his ultimate petrie dish. A place in which the limits to his genius will only be set by his talents, creativity and drive.
Corbin, Stallings and Malzahn could be considered the most talented trio of coaches in the league, bar none. The Holy Trinity, if you will, of coaching creativity.
Sounds like a match made in heaven. How about you, Gus?