Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Malzahn to Arkansas State is feel good story of the year

image It’s been a difficult year to follow college football. The 2011 season has been riddled with stories most people don’t want to have associated with the best and most exciting sport in the country. It was enough for many fans to grow cold and cynical, writing off college football as another reflection of a society consumed with greed, instant gratification and total disregard for the rules of decent behavior.

We were shocked to learn that Fiesta Bowl executives plundered their non-profit organization for riches beyond belief. We got tired of reading about once-respected coaches losing their jobs after lying about their players’ receipt of improper benefits. We reeled in disgust when reading of a rogue booster paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to players, buying them drugs and booze, hiring prostitutes and arranging abortions. We saw a parade of schools go before the NCAA Committee on Infractions and get handed stiff penalties for rules violations. Last month, the entire nation recoiled in horror as the once-revered Joe Paterno was forced out at Penn State amid allegations of decades of child sexual abuse by one of his assistants, enabled and covered up by one of the most storied programs in the country.

The story of Arkansas State knocking down the home run hire of Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn doesn’t erase the 2011 pain, but at least it lets us end the season on a high note and celebrate what’s great about college football. Sometimes, it’s not about money, power and prestige. Sometimes, it’s recognizing that home, family and doing good work in the right place is more important and more rewarding than taking the next big step up. Every now and then, somebody does something for the good of the game. This is one of those times.

What’s not to love about this story, if you’re a college football fan and you have any hope for the future of the sport? When the rumblings of a possible deal first became public, the cynicism born of the 2011 scandals caused many people to scoff. No way the could tiny, low-budget Arkansas State Red Wolves lure the nation’s highest paid assistant to Jonesboro to take over a Sun Belt Conference school that had paid its previous coach the lowest salary in FBS. No way would Gus Malzahn take such a huge cut in pay to coach such a lowly program with no automatic qualifying bid to a BCS bowl. No way would he go into a program in a state dominated by SEC West power Arkansas and try to compete for recruits with Bobby Petrino.

While the cynicism is certainly understandable, these lines of reasoning also ignored all of the reasons why the deal was all but done at the moment of first contact. First of all, there’s not as much of a cut in pay as one might think. The new contract is reportedly worth $5.1 million over six years, pretty close to the current $1.3 million, four years remaining deal he’s under now. Financially, it’s not that big of a drop-off.

Second, people underestimated Malzahn’s desire to be a head coach at the right program. There’s probably not a better fit anywhere in FBS than the Red Wolves. Their high-octane offense lit up the league in 2010 and 2011 and schematically, adjusting to Malzahn’s style of play won’t take two or three years.

Third, this says absolutely nothing about Auburn or Gene Chizik. This isn’t about Auburn at all. It’s not about philosophical differences or management styles or pending doom or any of that other nonsense you’re going to see floated around in the next few days. This is not about you, Auburn. This is about a guy realizing where he needs to be and going there.

Last of all—and here’s the part of this that makes me smile broadly—the cynics completely ignored the Malzahns’ desire as a family to “come home.” Both Gus and his wife are Arkansas natives. You don’t spend so many years of your lives together in a small, southern state like Arkansas and not have deep roots there. Usually, the only obstacles preventing successful people like Malzahn from returning are financial. The Arkansas State program crunched the numbers and found a way to get close.

And so, a Frank Broyles Award winning assistant coach who is already a legend in the state is coming home. The coach who designed an offense that won a BCS National Championship and Cam Newton the Heisman Trophy is moving to Jonesboro. The small town boy who made the big time didn’t forget where he came from, and rather than holding out for allegedly “better” jobs at places like Arizona State, Houston or possibly Southern Miss, Malzahn decided to return to his roots and play on a smaller stage for a while.

Instead of being regarded as a high dollar hired gun, Gus Malzahn will be treated like a hometown hero.

These are the kinds of stories that give us hope, and this is the feel good story of the year. After the season we’ve had, Lord knows we needed one.

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