ORLANDO, Fla. -- UCF hired former Auburn football coach Gus Malzahn on Monday, signing him to a five-year, $11.5 million contract and banking on the offensive background and name recognition he brings with him.
Athletic director Terry Mohajir described Malzahn as a "national brand coach," whose arrival will only help UCF continue to emerge as a football school trying to break its way into the establishment. Mohajir, also recently hired at UCF, said one of the first calls he made after getting the job was to see whether Malzahn had any interest in coaching again.
Malzahn emerged as UCF's leading candidate on Sunday and replaces Josh Heupel, who left last month for the Tennessee head-coaching job.
Malzahn, 55, was fired on Dec. 13 after eight seasons at Auburn. He was 68-35 overall and 39-27 in SEC play. Malzahn took the Tigers to the national championship game in his first season in 2013. They won 10 games and made an SEC championship game appearance in 2017, but went just 14-12 against SEC opponents over the next three seasons.
During his introductory news conference, Malzahn said he had no plans to coach in 2021. But when the UCF job came open, he immediately became interested not only because of the program's position among the Group of 5 but because of its emphasis on tempo offense.
In addition, he and Mohajir worked together briefly at Arkansas State in 2012, before Malzahn left for the Auburn job.
Mohajir said of the call he made to Malzahn to gauge his interest in UCF, "I could feel the fire through the phone."
"This is one of the top 20 coaching jobs in all of college football," Malzahn said. "When this opportunity came, I was ready. I really believe they're getting the best Gus Malzahn of any time in my career, for the fact that I had eight weeks to reflect, refresh, evaluate, and to be better the next time you do it."
Malzahn signed a seven-year, $49 million contract with Auburn following the 2017 season and was owed a $21.7 million buyout when he was fired by the school in December. Per the terms of his contract, he received half of that money within 30 days of his termination on Dec. 13 and will receive the rest in equal annual installments over the next four years, regardless of his contract with UCF.
In the memorandum of understanding between UCF and Malzahn, if he accepts another college or professional football coaching position before Dec. 31, 2021, he will owe a $7 million buyout. That number drops to $5 million if he leaves before Dec. 31, 2022; $3 million if he leaves before Dec. 31, 2023; $2 million if he leaves before Dec. 31, 2024; and $500,000 if he leaves after Dec. 31, 2024, but before the first regular-season football game of 2025.
Malzahn is expected to hire Miami's Travis Williams as defensive coordinator, a source told ESPN. Williams coached under Malzahn at Auburn for the past seven seasons, including the past two as co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. He then left to become Miami's linebackers coach but instead will reunite with Malzahn at UCF.
Malzahn was just 8-17 against SEC rivals Alabama, Georgia and LSU, but he was also one of the few coaches in college football to have any success against Nick Saban at Alabama. Since the start of the 2013 season, Saban is 65-6 against SEC opponents, and three of those losses were to Malzahn.
Despite that success against Saban, Malzahn drew criticism for his team's offensive struggles toward the end of his tenure -- one of the biggest issues that led to his dismissal. As UCF ranked No. 2 in the nation in total offense in 2020, averaging 568.1 yards per game behind rising quarterback star Dillon Gabriel, Auburn ranked No. 77, averaging 186 yards fewer per game.
"At times, we had some of the top offenses in college football," Malzahn said. "Last year, we were the least experienced team in our league, and that had something to do with it, but I've always got a chip on my shoulder and something to prove. We will definitely have a high-powered offense. We will build on what we've done and been successful here with and we'll build around our quarterback. There's no doubt in my mind we're going to have one of the best offenses in all of college football."
Malzahn said he will call the plays at UCF and has determined he will never relinquish playcalling duties again after doing so multiple times at Auburn.
Making sure UCF remains a prolific offense is obviously a huge priority. But so is building UCF back into a New Year's Six contender -- and maybe even a College Football Playoff contender. Malzahn knows what that looks like firsthand -- UCF beat his Auburn team in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl to finish an undefeated 2017 season and declare itself the national champion.
Last season, UCF struggled to a 6-4 mark, well below the expectations that have been set by the 2017 and 2018 New Year's Six teams UCF produced. Former athletic director Danny White made it a point to talk about playoff expansion repeatedly, but he remained steadfast in his resolve to not settle for terms Power 5 teams offered when it came to nonconference scheduling.
Malzahn and Mohajir signaled a shift away from that philosophy, saying repeatedly they believe there is a way for UCF to make the top 4 as an undefeated team. And one way is to schedule and beat top-10 nonconference opponents. When Mohajir was hired, he indicated he would be open to scheduling Florida if the right opportunity presented itself.
"I'll play out in the parking lot," Malzahn said. "Terry can decide if we're playing at home or on the road, I just want to play them and I want to beat them."
"We're going to do everything in our power as a program to give our guys a chance to do that, and I truly believe we will be in the final four in a short period of time."
Kent State coach Sean Lewis also was among those considered for the UCF job, according to sources.
ESPN's Chris Low and Adam Rittenberg contributed to this report.