In late November, rumors swirled that the school was prepared to fire Malzahn, even though that would mean paying him $32 million not to coach. Some well-sourced reporters believed Malzahn’s ouster to be a fait accompli. Then came reports suggesting that Auburn wanted the coach to accept a lesser buyout to keep coaching. (Nobody of sound mind would have agreed to that.)
For a bizarre few days, the world waited for some sort of announcement. When something finally came, it was Malzahn appearing as the Tigers began bowl practice and saying: “My contract has not changed one bit. I was never told I had to change my contract to keep my job. I have the support of our athletic director and president. There’s nobody hamstringing me from doing our job.”
Then the Tigers beat Purdue 63-14 in the Music City Bowl. Then they managed, turmoil be hanged, to assemble the nation’s 11th-best recruiting class. And here they are, about to play a schedule that includes Oregon, Texas A&M, Florida, LSU, Georgia and Alabama. All who believe Malzahn will be coaching Auburn this time next year, raise thy hands. Someone? Anyone?
Complicating matters — at Auburn, nothing is uncomplicated — is that the AD who hired him, Jay Jacobs, now works at Florida. Steven Leath, the president who agreed to the $49 million contract, was himself bought out. Of the many strident voices around the Loveliest Village, who stands for Gloomy Gus?
He’s again calling plays for the no-huddle, hurry-up offense he designed. At its best, as in 2010 with Cam Newton working wonders and Malzahn as Chizik’s offensive coordinator, or in 2013, with Nick Marshall and Tre Mason running wild, it can be nigh-unstoppable. The hurry-up aspect, alas, was compromised by college football’s adoption of a 10-second window allowing the defense to substitute.
As we know, any offense is only as good as its quarterback. Auburn’s choices include freshman Bo Nix and redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood. Malzahn’s critics take glee in noting that the great offensive mind has never won big with a quarterback he signed. (Newton, Marshall and Stidham were transfers.)
“I’m really excited about our team,” Malzahn said Thursday, speaking at SEC Media Days. He said he saw “some of those same championship characteristics” in the 2019 Tigers as in previous title-taking crews. He said, “We’ve got a chance. Not every team in our league can say that.”
The Tigers also have a chance to go 6-6 or 7-5, and even 8-4 mightn’t be enough for Malzahn. The first question to him involved job security. To his credit, he didn’t duck it. “I’ve a got a job that expects to win championships,” he said. “I expect to win championships. If you don’t, it’s ‘hot-seat this, hot-seat that.’ Of the (past) six years, four have been this same rodeo.”
Then: “Some places, eight wins they celebrate. That’s not Auburn.” Nope.
Only Auburn is Auburn. Only Auburn would re-up a guy for $49 million and, within months, fall ill with buyer’s remorse. There is, however, one bit of good news for the Gus-must-go gang. His buyout after this season would be a mere $26 million.