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Gus Malzahn's Head Coaching Prospects

Chris Low reported on Saturday afternoon that Gus Malzahn is Vanderbilt's top choice for its newly vacant head coaching position, and that VU had already called up Auburn about him. Low also reports that Malzahn had received some head coaching inquiries last year, but that Malzahn says he won't jump at just anything that comes along.

As this year's coaching carousel spins up, I've seen Malzahn's name attached to just about every vacant job by someone. He's already touted as one of the hottest coaching names for 2010, leading many to dismiss the possibility that he ends up at Vanderbilt.

Before going too far, it's worth taking a close look at his resume. For such a popular name, he lacks a lot of experience. Malzahn has only five years' worth of college coaching under his belt, after all. His competency as an offensive coordinator is unquestioned, but there's a lot more to being a head coach than being a coordinator.

In his first year at Arkansas, no one knows just how much coaching he actually got to do. Houston Nutt wouldn't allow him to run his offense and overruled him on a lot of things. That messy situation led him to pack his bags and leave Fayetteville.

He landed at Tulsa next, where he was a co-coordinator along with Rich Rodriguez disciple Herb Hand. The offenses he helped run were terrors in 2007-08, leading the country in yards per game each year and averaging 41 and 47 points a game respectively. While it's true that Tulsa's numbers dipped in 2009 after Malzahn left, the Golden Hurricane is back up in the top five in yards per game and top ten in points per game after hiring a high school head coach of its own, Chad Morris. The stats aren't equal to their Malzahn-era counterparts, but they're not too far off.

In this season at Auburn, Malzahn has had a dominant offense run by Cam Newton. Newton is an incredible talent though, and even Texas's questionably competent Greg Davis was able to be dominant with Vince Young running the show. The best argument for Malzahn's brilliance to date is Auburn's 2009 season, in which he took the pieces that made up the Tigers' bottom-20 total and scoring offense in 2008 and made them top 20 in both categories that year.

So while it's not surprising to see Vanderbilt, who hired its last head coach from Furman, interested in Malzahn, that's the only school we know of that has inquired about his services this year. If a bigger school than that, like Colorado for instance, calls him, then Vandy has no shot. But will a bigger school call?

It's not just a matter of Malzahn having little coaching experience. His past four years of offensive coaching have been dazzling, reaching levels equal to that of (for example) Urban Meyer's heights at Utah and Mike Leach's best Texas Tech teams. Of course, that's not a perfect comparison because those two were also head coaches running the whole show.

There also is the matter that a consquence of his limited experience is his relative lack of recruiting ties. I'm sure he's made inroads at plenty of high schools around the south having recruited in the SEC three years now. However, he doesn't have as many connections as a lot of coaches around the region have. That's not as big a deal as it sounds, as outsiders like Meyer and Les Miles have come in and caught up quickly. Again though, they both were already head coaches when they came to the league and had many more years of cultivating relationships than Malzahn has had.

I guess the point of all of this rambling is that I don't expect to see Malzahn get a premium job like Miami or (potentially) Michigan. Sure, Ohio State hired a I-AA coach last time around, but Jim Tressel had won several national titles at Youngstown State. I think about the best that Malzahn can hope for is the job at Stanford, if Jim Harbaugh was to leave for another job like (potentially) Michigan. The Cardinal, if you remember, hired Harbaugh from I-AA San Diego.

Beyond that, who knows? Would he want to go to Colorado if it asked? That program is a wreck, will have a tight budget for years, and likely will go after bigger names first. Minnesota is not that much better off than CU is. UL-Lafayette is not big enough for him to jump to. If he'd be willing to go to Indiana, why not stay in the south and go to Vandy instead?

My guess is that Malzahn isn't going anywhere in the immediate future. I doubt he'd be interested in listening to anyone until after this weekend's SEC Championship Game anyway. He's got the luxury of being able to wait and see all of job openings before jumping at one because his job at Auburn is a good one. All the same, he'll be going up in the job market against longer-termed successful coordinators like Oklahoma's Brent Venables and VT's Bud Foster; hot head coaching names like Dan Mullen and Al Golden; and former head coaches looking to get back in the game like Leach, Mike Bellotti, and Jim Leavitt.

I doubt that any SEC jobs besides Vanderbilt will come open unless someone hires Mullen away from Mississippi State. If Malzahn really wants to become a head coach this year, and he's losing a lot of offensive talent after the season, I wouldn't be surprised if he ends up in Nashville.