- Auburn has fired head football coach Gus Malzahn.
- The move is somewhat curious due to Malzahn’s 68-35 record at the school as well as the 7 year $49 million extension he signed in 2018.
- Lane Kiffin is currently the SPORTS INSIDERS betting favorite to replace Malzahn.
It’s not easy to find a good college football coach no matter what level a program might be at. A few schools get lucky–Alabama with Nick Saban, for example. Other schools have it tough no matter what their current situation might be. Case in point–Liberty University where Hugh Freeze has redeemed himself after leaving Ole Miss in some degree of disgrace. Even though Freeze has signed a five year extension making him one of the highest paid non-Power 5 coaches in college football Liberty will be hard pressed to keep him should a vacancy at Tennessee become available.
The difficulty of finding a head coach that is a) a good fit and b) has a fair amount of success makes the decision of Auburn University to fire head coach Gus Malzahn all the more curious. Malzahn was shown the door after Auburn finished the 2020 regular season 6-4, winning a 24-10 verdict against Mississippi State in their season finale. Malzahn was informed of the move just before a team meeting on Sunday at which point the team was also informed of the coaching change.
There had been some conjecture heading into the stretch run of this season that Malzahn could be on the chopping block. Even so, it’s a tough firing to rationalize for several reasons. First of all, Malzahn was successful on the field and leaves Auburn with a 68-35 record in eight seasons. He may have set himself up due to his early level of success–Auburn reached the BCS National Championship in his first year at the helm–but if winning a National Championship is the criteria that makes or breaks a career every coach not named ‘Saban’ or ‘Dabo’ should polish up their resume.
All the more impressive, he put up these numbers in a little conference called the SEC that’s pretty good at football. He went 39-27 in conference though ESPN speculated that his 8-17 combined record against Alabama, Georgia and LSU might have been his downfall. That’s also tough to buy considering that the opponents in question have gone a combined 229-56 during Malzahn’s tenure. It’s not like any head coach has had much success against them. Malzahn had even gone 3-5 in the Iron Bowl rivalry game against Alabama. The Crimson Tide put up a combined 85-9 record during Malzahn’s run and are generally considered to have been the best program in the country during that stretch. In this context, going 3-5 isn’t bad at all. If we compare Auburn’s performance against Alabama to South Carolina’s performance against Clemson what Malzahn has done is all the more impressive. South Carolina hasn’t won against their traditional rival since 2013 and only once have they been within double digits of the Tigers.
There were some other even less viable explanations, most focusing on Auburn’s offensive output. The Tigers are only 7th in points scored in the SEC since 2018 but there’s not a coach in the world that gets fired over ‘offensive output’ when they’re winning games. One article I read suggested that Malzahn was likely fired due to the Tigers regression in yards per play over the past several years. I can guarantee you that did not figure into the equation.
Then there’s his contractual situation. Malzahn signed an seven year, $49 million contract just two years ago. Hard to figure how Auburn could have soured on him during that timeframe. First of all, every head coach that isn’t downright inept deserves a mulligan for the COVID-19 pandemic season of 2020. That means Malzahn was judged harshly on his 2019 performance–that year the Tigers went 9-4 overall and 5-3 in SEC play despite the fact that two of the three best teams in college football (Alabama and LSU) played in the same division as Auburn. Georgia was also a powerhouse in 2019 going 12-2 overall and 7-1 in the SEC. Auburn even beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl that year meaning their in-conference losses were to Georgia, National Champions LSU (15-0) and a Florida team that finished 11-2 and ranked #6. Reports indicate that Auburn will pay Malzahn a buyout of $21 million to settle his contract.
There may be a skeleton set to fall out of the closet at Auburn though the statement from university president Jay Gogue suggests otherwise:
“Coach Malzahn led the Auburn football program with honor and integrity. We appreciate his service to Auburn Athletics, Auburn University and, in particular, our student-athletes. We wish him and [wife] Kristi all the best.”
IT’S NOT EASY TO FIND A GOOD COLLEGE FOOTBALL HEAD COACH
My guess is that it’s something you see frequently in college football–a booster driven type of myopic thinking suggesting that a program is higher up in the college football pecking order than they really are. Auburn is a very good program but there’s little to suggest that the only thing keeping them from joining Alabama and Clemson in college football’s elite is a new head coach.
South Carolina’s difficulty in filling their coaching vacancy after they fired Will Muschamp earlier this year should have been a cautionary tale about the difficulty of getting an elite level coach to sign on with a program. The Gamecocks were rebuffed by most of the names on their ‘short list’ including Liberty’s Hugh Freeze, Coastal Carolina’s Jamey Chadwell, Lousiana’s Billy Napier, Louisville’s Scott Satterfield, Alabama OC Steve Sarkisian and Florida offensive coordinator Brian Johnson. The Gamecocks ended up getting a decent young head coach despite their best efforts to the contrary with Oklahoma assistant (and former South Carolina assistant under Steve Spurrier) Shane Beamer.
In many ways, South Carolina was–in theory at least–a more attractive job than Auburn’s vacancy. The Gamecocks need a rebuild but they have a very supportive fan base that will beatify any coach that can make them competitive in the SEC. That’s basically what Steve Spurrier did and he’s revered as a god in these parts. With Malzahn’s firing it sends the message to prospective coaching candidates that Auburn has unrealistic expectations about where they are in the pantheon of college football programs and where they think they should be. A 66% winning percentage playing in the toughest division in the toughest conference in college football just isn’t enough.
Another problem that Auburn now has–they have to hire a coach that is perceived as an ‘upgrade’ by boosters or at the very least they have to land a ‘big name’. They can’t do what South Carolina did with Shane Beamer’s hire and find a young up and coming coach with huge potential upside. They have to find someone with a sufficient ‘brand equity’ to justify firing a successful head coach and scratching out a $21 million check in the process.
The various ‘top candidates’ lists that have surfaced since Malzahn’s firing was announced includes quite a few of the same candidates that South Carolina wanted including Hugh Freeze, Billy Napier and Steve Sarkisian. Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott and defensive coordinator Brent Venables are on the list–their chances of luring Elliott away from TigerTown…er…the *other* TigerTown… are slim and none and their chances of getting Venables are less than that.
So who would be interested in taking the Auburn head coaching job? Glad you asked–here’s the official SPORTSINSIDER.COM odds on the next coach at Auburn University. After the odds rundown, I’ll give you a capsule handicap of each. Look for a more in-depth analysis on the candidates coming later this week:
NEXT PERMANENT HEAD FOOTBALL COACH AT AUBURN UNIVERSITY
Lane Kiffin +200 Tom Allen +350 Kevin Steele +500 Dan Quinn +600 Billy Napier +1000 Bill Clark +1500 Scott Satterfield +2500 Mario Cristobal +2500 Jamey Chadwell +3500 Steve Sarkisian +5000 Tony Elliott +5000 Brent Venables +5000 Hugh Freeze +5000 Art Briles +10000 Any Other Head Coach +1000
Lane Kiffin has a big name, is a former Alabama offensive coordinator and at age 45 is still very young for a coach with his resume. All of this might make Auburn boosters not notice that he’s not as good of a head coach as the one they fired. Tom Allen has turned around the long suffering Indiana football program and would be playing in the Big Ten championship game had the conference not screwed IU over to put Ohio State there. I like Allen a lot and think that he’s probably the best head coach that Auburn has a realistic shot at. He’s been an assistant all over the place including in the SEC at Ole Miss. Not sure that he’s a big enough ‘name’ to placate the Auburn faithful.
Kevin Steele is the interim head coach at Auburn with Malzahn gone and that alone makes him a strong candidate. He’s done a good job with Auburn’s defense but might be a better coordinator than a head coach as evidenced by his 9-36 record at Baylor. Not sure that Auburn can get away with firing a head coach that has done nothing but win only to replace him with his defensive coordinator but if they had to go this route they could at least play the ‘continuity’ card. Former Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn is intriguing. He really wasn’t the problem in Atlanta and has a good deal of experience in college ball including a couple of years as the defensive coordinator and defensive line coach at Florida. Quinn’s NFL pedigree makes him a big enough ‘name’ to replace Malzahn. It might not be a bad move for Quinn to do some college coaching and wait for a good NFL opportunity to open up.
Billy Napier is a good head coach that will get a higher profile job than his current gig at Louisiana sooner rather than later. He’s got a lot of coaching experience for a 41 year old guy and would be a great hire for any program. Not sure that Auburn’s boosters would accept hiring a guy from the Sun Belt Conference. The same dynamic will probably take UAB’s Bill Clark out of the running. If Louisville’s Scott Satterfield didn’t want the South Carolina job I can’t see why he’d want to take the Auburn gig. Mario Cristobal might show some interest to give him more leverage with his current employer but he’s not leaving Eugene, Oregon to coach in Auburn, Alabama. Coastal Carolina’s Jamie Chadwell has become one of the hottest up and coming head coaches in football. At age 43, he’s in a position to bide his time and wait for a perfect opportunity. Auburn isn’t it.
Steve Sarkisian taking over at Auburn would be the biggest ‘heel turn’ since Hulk Hogan joined the Kevin Nash and Scott Hall in the NWO. Tony Elliott isn’t leaving Clemson. At age 41, he’s got plenty of time. It would be a real strong move by Auburn to hire their first African-American head coach but would they have the balls to do it? Ask Charles Barkley what he thinks. Brent Venables is even less likely to leave Clemson. Auburn might as well make a run at Dabo Swinney if they want to get rejected by a Clemson coach. Hugh Freeze isn’t going anywhere until the Tennessee job opens up. He may have finally outrun the ‘baggage’ he accumulated at Ole Miss where his cellphone had the strange problem of repeatedly ‘accidentally’ dialing escort services. Word is that as late as last year he was ‘blackballed’ by the SEC for this reason. The new word is that is no longer the case but he’s going to bide his time and take a shot at what he calls his ‘dream job’ in Knoxville. Art Briles….how do you think hiring a coach who lost his job in a sexual assault scandal and currently coaching at a high school would go over?