Auburn has turned to Gus Malzahn to restore a program that made an unprecedented fall two years after winning the national title with Cam Newton operating the then-assistant coach's high-powered offense to perfection.
Malzahn was the Tigers' offensive coordinator during their 2010 national championship run before heading to Arkansas State for his first college head coaching position. He received a five-year contract worth $2.3 million annually to try to get the team back on solid footing.
"I recruited a lot of them and have very good relationships," Malzahn said. "I just told them our expectations are to win championships. Whatever happened last year happened last year. It's a new day. We're going to put a good brand of football on the field and we're going to have fun doing it."
He led the Red Wolves to a 9-3 record, a Sun Belt Conference title and a berth in the GoDaddy.com Bowl, then parlayed that into a job in the powerhouse Southeastern Conference.
Several hundred fans greeted Malzahn's plane, and he rushed along the line exchanging high-fives. He promised to get Auburn "back to winning championships."
"I'm just tickled to death," he said. "It's a true honor for me to be the head coach of the Auburn Tigers. I spent three years here and I can honestly say it's the best three years of my life. I feel connected forever."
The 47-year-old Malzahn returns with his fast-paced, no-huddle offensive style. He replaces former boss Gene Chizik, who was fired one day after a 49-0 loss to No. 2 Alabama to complete a 3-9 season.
Malzahn hasn't ruled out coaching in the bowl game for Arkansas State, which said he had a $700,000 buyout.
Athletic director Jay Jacobs declined to say who else he interviewed, but said it didn't matter.
"The characteristics that he brought to the table were head and shoulders above everybody else," Jacobs said.
Before his arrival at Auburn in 2009, Malzahn had spent two seasons as Tulsa's offensive coordinator. He was the offensive coordinator at Arkansas for one year after a successful run in the Arkansas high school ranks.
Auburn had the nation's 115th-ranked offense last season, averaging 305 yards a game. The Red Wolves were ranked 19th in total yards under Malzahn.
"We will be a fast-paced, attacking-style offense and defense," Malzahn said. "In this day and age, I believe you have to."
It's the second straight time Auburn has turned to one of its coordinators from an unbeaten team. Chizik ran the defense for the 13-0 team in 2004 but was hired by the Tigers despite a 5-19 record in two seasons at Iowa State.
"We are tremendously excited that Gus Malzahn will be our next head football coach," Jacobs said. "Coach Malzahn was the clear unanimous choice of our search committee, and I am pleased that Dr. Gogue has accepted our recommendation. This is a great day for Auburn football and Auburn University."
The search committee was comprised of Jacobs, Auburn Heisman Trophy winners Pat Sullivan and Bo Jackson and former Tigers player Mac Crawford.
Jackson said he was confident that "we got the right man."
"We talked to a lot of talented coaches, a lot of coaches that are going to be Division I coaches other places, and they're all stars in their own right," said Jackson, the 1985 Heisman winner. "Gus shined a little bit brighter than those guys in the interview process."
Malzahn said his first priorities will be recruiting and hiring coordinators, but didn't mention any candidates.
Auburn owes more than $11 million in buyouts to Chizik and his coaching staff.
The Tigers are hoping Malzahn can return them to success after a winless SEC season.
"Gus Malzahn is a proven winner," Jacobs said. "He is without question one of the brightest minds in college football and he has won everywhere he has been. Coach Malzahn knows what it takes to build a championship program in the Southeastern Conference. He knows our state and region and he understands what it will take to turn our program around. Coach Malzahn will also be an outstanding ambassador for Auburn University, and that was important to the committee."
The NCAA has been investigating the recruitment of signee Jovon Robinson, who was ruled ineligible after a guidance counselor admitted to creating a fake transcript.
"I feel very confident that everything is fine, and that's my understanding," Malzahn said.
The Tigers badly struggled in a transition to Scot Loeffler's pro-style last season, starting three quarterbacks.
Auburn was ranked in the top seven in rushing, total and scoring offense in 2010 and Newton won the Heisman Trophy in his lone season out of the junior college ranks. It was the Tigers' first national title since 1957.
Without Newton, the Tigers slipped to 100th in total offense in 2011 and then dipped even further.
The defense struggled, too. Defensive end Nosa Eguae said he thinks Malzahn was the right guy.
"I know coach Malzahn, and he's an amazing man," Eguae said. "He's a standup guy. I'm looking forward to the future. I can't wait to get started and turn this thing around and get some wins."
The hiring reunites Malzahn with the quarterback he recruited out of Arkansas. Kiehl Frazier was benched last season after struggling as the starter. He was USA Today's national offensive player of the year as a high school senior.
Malzahn had been earning $1.3 million a year for the Tigers after interviewing with Vanderbilt after the national championship season. He took a substantial pay cut to join the head coaching ranks with the Sun Belt Conference team. Malzahn replaced Hugh Freeze, who also left after one season at Arkansas State to take over at Mississippi.
Chizik's tenure was marred by off-the-field problems, including the arrest of four players from the championship team for armed robbery.
Malzahn also made a couple of decisions with players that didn't pan out. Tailback Mike Dyer transferred from Auburn — where he was suspended — to Arkansas State. He was then dismissed by Arkansas State in July after a state trooper found marijuana and a gun in a car the national title game MVP was driving.
Jacobs said discipline was a factor in choosing Malzahn.