JONESBORO — Billboards promoting Arkansas State University’s 2012 football team featured head football coach Gus Malzahn and the phrase "Game On." Now it’s game over, at least as far as Malzahn’s ASU tenure is concerned.
Malzahn was announced Tuesday as Auburn’s replacement for Gene Chizik, who was fired last month at the end of his fourth season as the Tigers’ head coach. Malzahn leaves ASU after one season as head coach, a year in which he guided the Red Wolves to a 9-3 overall record and the team’s second consecutive Sun Belt Conference championship.
Athletic director Terry Mohajir said in a university statement that ASU plans for Malzahn and his staff to coach the Red Wolves when they play Kent State in the Jan. 6 GoDaddy.com Bowl at Mobile, Ala. Mohajir said he would meet with Malzahn to deal with transition issues, "keeping the interests of our student-athletes foremost in mind."
Malzahn asked whether he would coach the Red Wolves in the GoDaddy.com Bowl during his introductory press conference Tuesday night at Auburn. "I need to talk with their administration and all that, but I’ll say this — I am 100 percent committed to Auburn and getting this thing going as soon as possible," he said.
A university spokesperson said ASU System President Chuck Welch and ASU Chancellor Tim Hudson would not comment Tuesday beyond their statements in the university’s announcement.
Malzahn is returning to the program he served for three seasons as offensive coordinator. Earlier Tuesday, he met with ASU players to inform them of his departure.
"Coach Gus Malzahn informed us this afternoon that he would be accepting the head coaching position at Auburn University," Hudson said. "We appreciate his contributions to our conference championship season and wish him well."
ASU has started a search for a coach who will be the Red Wolves’ fourth in four seasons. Steve Roberts led ASU in 2010, the last of his nine seasons as head coach, and Hugh Freeze guided the 2011 Sun Belt championship team before accepting the head coaching position at Ole Miss.
The search for ASU’s 29th head coach will be led by Hudson, Mohajir and Welch.
"The back-to-back championships in the Sun Belt Conference make this a very attractive position, and we’re confident we’ll have a lot of interest," Mohajir said. "This administration, this community and the entire Arkansas State family have demonstrated our commitment to have a nationally prominent intercollegiate athletics program and will continue to do so."
ASU gave Malzahn a five-year contract with an estimated annual value of $850,000. The terms included a $700,000 buyout in the event of Malzahn’s resignation within the first year of the contract, specified as Jan. 1, 2012, through Jan. 31, 2013.
The contract also included a bonus of $50,000 for a conference championship and participation in a bowl game. According to the terms, the bonus is paid only if Malzahn is still employed by the university at the time the event occurs. Malzahn would also receive $10,000 for being named conference coach of the year, and the Sun Belt is scheduled to announce its postseason awards today.
ASU announced plans in September to build a $22 million football facility that will be funded through private donations. Those plans remain in place, Welch said.
"We remain firmly committed to our facilities upgrade plans," Welch said. "We owe this to our student-athletes and fans, and we remain excited about the opportunities ahead for the Red Wolves."
ASU attracted national attention a year ago when Malzahn, known for his expertise in developing fast-paced, high-scoring offenses, agreed to return to his home state as the Red Wolves’ head coach.
Malzahn, 47, had spent the previous three seasons at Auburn, winning the 2010 Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach. The Tigers won the 2010 BCS national championship with Malzahn calling plays and Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton at quarterback.
ASU put up impressive numbers this season with senior quarterback Ryan Aplin running Malzahn’s system. The Red Wolves led the Sun Belt in scoring (36.4 points per game), rushing offense (217.4 yards per game) and passing efficiency (155.4 rating).
Saturday’s 45-0 win over Middle Tennessee State, the Red Wolves’ seventh consecutive victory, gave ASU its second straight Sun Belt title. The Red Wolves accepted a GoDaddy.com Bowl bid Sunday.
Reports indicate Malzahn interviewed with Auburn earlier this week. Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs described Malzahn as "a proven winner" and as "one of brightest minds in college football."
Malzahn received a five-year contract at Auburn with an annual salary of $2.3 million, according to reports. In a statement released by Auburn, Malzahn said he is grateful for the opportunity to become the Tigers’ head coach.
"It’s an outstanding institution with a storied football program that I had the pleasure of experiencing firsthand for three years," Malzahn said. "I deeply appreciate the confidence that (Auburn president) Dr. (Jay) Gogue, Jay Jacobs and the search committee had in my ability to turn this program around and to bring Auburn back to national prominence. This is a homecoming for me, and I look forward to being reunited with the Auburn family."