HOUSTON -- Gus Malzahn knows all about Bear Bryant, so this award meant a whole lot to the Auburn coach.
Malzahn is the Paul "Bear" Bryant Coach of the Year after leading a remarkable turnaround in his first season in charge of the Tigers, who went to the national title game a year after they went 3-9.
Malzahn, who like Bryant is from Arkansas, said Wednesday night that he was honored to be associated with an award named for the fabled former Alabama coach.
"When you're growing up, he's the man," Malzahn said. "The fact that I'm from the state of Arkansas and he's from Fordyce, Arkansas, and one of my best friends is coaching high school there makes it even that much more special."
Auburn came up just short in the national championship, with Florida State scoring a touchdown with 13 seconds left to pick up a 34-31 win.
"We're still hurting over the fact that we were close to winning the national championship and got beat," Malzahn said. "But if you can remove yourself from that, it was a lot of fun, our players came a long way, they improved each week and we were 13 seconds away from being the national champion."
Malzahn beat out Baylor's Art Briles, Rice's David Bailiff, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio and Stanford's David Shaw for the honor.
The Tigers, who were winless in Southeastern Conference play in 2012, reeled off nine straight victories after a loss to LSU on Sept. 21 to gain a spot in the title game this season. They were the talk of college football when they returned a missed field goal 109 yards for a last-second score to beat then-top-ranked Alabama on Nov. 30.
Malzahn knew his team was talented, but even he was amazed at what Auburn was able to do this season.
"There's no doubt," he said. "It's hard to get better each week. I bet we're one of the few teams that actually did that, and the fact that we were playing our best football toward the end of the year, it was a lot of fun to watch those guys grow and end up where they did."
Dantonio led the Spartans to a school-record 13 wins and a No. 3 finish in the final Associated Press poll. It was Michigan State's highest ranking since reaching No. 2 in 1966.
"To me, Bear Bryant is almost a mystical figure," Dantonio said. "When you grow up in a football setting as I did in Ohio in that time period in the '60s and '70s when you were playing high school football, Bear Bryant is legend. To be associated with an award like this is very humbling."
Briles helped the Bears to their first Big 12 title and first BCS bowl game this season. He said Baylor's recent success has helped him get a much warmer reception than he once received when he visits the homes of recruits.
"It is completely different," he said. "We're in living rooms and kitchens that we never were in before, and that's the reality of the situation. Baylor has always had a great location. Now we've got a great location, with a great stadium on a great river (with a team) that's doing a great job on the football field and a great education."
Former Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum was the ceremony's other honoree, receiving the Bryant Lifetime Achievement Award. Slocum coached the Aggies from 1989 to 2002.
"I did have a chance to know him, and certainly his accomplishments I'm very aware of," Slocum said of Bryant. "Just to have a lifetime achievement award, there are so many people that are involved in that, and to me it's a sort of validation of the work of all those people, all those players."