JONESBORO, Ark. — Gus Malzahn was ready to be a college head coach, and Arkansas State presented a familiar setting to reach that goal.
The Arkansas native and Auburn offensive coordinator returned to his home state Wednesday to take over as the new coach of the Red Wolves. He was greeted by a standing ovation inside the school's Convocation Center and promised to put Arkansas State in the Top 25 mix annually.
Malzahn said he couldn't pass up the opportunity to be a head coach in his home state after spending the last six seasons as one of the top offensive coordinators in college football.
That included the last three seasons at Auburn, where he helped guide the Tigers to a national championship last season and tutored Heisman Trophy quarterback Cam Newton. Malzahn also spent two seasons as the offensive coordinator at a record-breaking Tulsa and one at Arkansas, where he began his college coaching career after being a high school coach in the state for 14 seasons.
"This is where I learned football, from Arkansas high school coaches," Malzahn said. "I'm not a normal college coach as far as the progression goes. So, I've always looked for the right place at the right time. Guess what? This is the right place and the right time."
Malzahn will coach at Auburn through the Chik-Fil-A Bowl on Dec. 31, but he will also begin recruiting and putting a staff together immediately for the Red Wolves (10-2), who face Northern Illinois in the Godaddy.com Bowl on Jan. 8.
The 46-year-old Malzahn made $1.3 million annually at Auburn. Arkansas State athletic director Dean Lee declined to say how much Malzahn would be paid at Arkansas State, but Lee did say the contract was for five years and would be the highest coaching salary in the Sun Belt Conference.
Former Red Wolves' coach Hugh Freeze, who left last week to become the coach at Mississippi, made $151,660 from the Red Wolves last season.
Even factoring in a pay cut from Auburn, Malzahn's salary figures to be much more than that. Lee said the school had offered Freeze more to remain Arkansas State, and that the in-state and national reputation of Malzahn allowed it to offer more than that.
Along with the salary comes high expectations at Arkansas State, which last won 10 games before this season in 1986 when it was a member of the I-AA Southland Conference. The Red Wolves were 45-63 in nine seasons before that under former coach Steve Roberts, but Freeze's enthusiasm and energy quickly took hold in Jonesboro.
Lee made it clear to Malzahn that even more is expected now while introducing the coach.
"We can be the Boise State of college football," Lee said. "Coach Malzahn, we want to be the Arkansas State of college football, which is going to be better than Boise State."
Malzahn had been linked to several top college head coaching positions in the last two seasons, including Vanderbilt and Maryland after last season and North Carolina and Kansas this year. That he eventually chose to return to his home state, and a school that rests solidly in the shadow of its in-state neighbor Arkansas, led to plenty of questions.
However, this isn't the first time Malzahn has taken an unlikely career path. He left Arkansas as its offensive coordinator after the 2006 season for the same position at Tulsa. With the opportunity to run his Hurry Up, No Huddle offense, Malzahn helped the Golden Hurricane field one of the top offenses in college football for two seasons.
He's counting on the same results at Arkansas State and said he has no regrets about his path to his first college head coaching job.
"The last two years, I've kind of got the bug to be a head coach," Malzahn said. "I think you have to investigate each opportunity, but you've got to wait until you feel right and this did."
The Red Wolves were undefeated in the Sun Belt this season and return the conference's Player of the Year, quarterback Ryan Aplin, next season.
"It's very humbling for somebody of his nature to come here, but this is home," Aplin said. "People are going to say what they're going to say. Everybody's got their own opinions. They're not in his shoes. They don't know exactly what's going on. This is where he wants to be, and we're glad to have him."