ORLANDO — Like most football coaches in the ever-changing world of college athletics, Gus Malzahn is inundated with a variety of issues.
Rosters have never been more unstable. Name, image and likeness, combined with the transfer portal, have led to a free-agency-like trend. He’s fighting to retain his own players who are being recruited by power programs, while recruiting the next signing class and scouting the portal himself. The recruiting process has accelerated like never before, social media is changing the way players communicate, and bidding wars for prospects are now actually legal.
But as Malzahn sits in his office on UCF’s campus two days before the Knights’ second spring game, his mind wanders to his personal life. After what he and his family have endured over the past six months, the stretch has shown the 56-year-old former Auburn coach from some perspective.
In October, Malzahn’s youngest daughter, Kenzie Stander, spent two weeks in the hospital with postbirth complications. A month later, Malzahn broke his leg on the sideline and used crutches for six weeks. In January, as the family recovered from their second bout with COVID-19, Malzahn’s wife, Kristi, developed a viral infection that included a three-week stay in the hospital and five days on a ventilator. “I almost lost her,” he says.
And then, recently, Kristi’s father passed away. While returning to Auburn to care for Kristi’s elderly mother, the Malzahns were involved in a crash in which a motorcyclist had to be airlifted to a medical facility. The man is expected to survive. Gus was not injured. A full incident report hasn’t been released, but the school has declined further comment and Malzahn did not specifically speak to the crash.
“It’s been one of the most challenging parts of my life,” Malzahn says. “Any time you go through something like that… there’s nothing more important than your wife and your kids. I’m one of those extreme football [guys], outwork people. I haven’t had balance.”
He says the most difficult stretch was from mid-January and into signing day, when Gus disappeared from the UCF football facility. It was for good reason. His wife of 34 years was dealing with a mysterious infection that started on her finger and worked its way into her bloodstream. It resulted in dehydration and a fever. Gus rushed her to the emergency room. She was admitted and then spent two weeks in the ICU—five days of those on a ventilator.
“There was a four- or five-day window where it didn’t look good at all,” he says.
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Her immune system was already compromised, Gus says, from a variety of things. She spent much of the fall caring for her ailing father of her, and Kenzie. That followed a January bout with COVID-19. It was the “perfect storm,” he says.
“It was a really tough deal,” he adds. “When I went through that with Kristi, it changed my whole perspective. This football, it’s important, but it’s not in the same atmosphere of what my wife went through. I’m hoping to be a better person and leader in the future and a better head coach.”
More than two months later, Kristi is fully recovered. The Malzahns are healthy and both presiding over the UCF football program.
“Me and Kristi, we do this football thing together,” Malzahn says. “This year, she was only able to come to three games. That was hard on me. She had to take care of her daddy. She’s a team mom. She’s a God-fearing lady. She’s doing great. Any time you go through something like that, your family is what you focus on. She’s doing that.”
Kenzie is fully recovered as well after spending two weeks in a Birmingham hospital after complications that arose after giving birth to a son in October. She was taken to the hospital while UCF played at Cincinnati. Gus flew directly from the game to Birmingham. About three weeks later, he was tackled on a play during a win over Tulane. After a defensive stop, defensive back Quadric Bullard collided with Malzahn. He’s fine now, off crutches and walking around as if nothing happened.
So, what’s next? Football. UCF’s spring game kicks off at 12 pm ET on Saturday and the Knights will be sporting a new look during the affair with NIL-inspired jerseys.
Malzahn hopes the most challenging time of his life is over. No more hiccups. No more traumatic events. Just football and family.
“It was a really challenging time,” he says. “A lot of great prayer. When you go through major adversity, you find out that there’s just so much outpouring from fans, former players, everybody.”
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