“He’s our coach, and he’ll be our coach for a long, long time.” — Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs
At first glance, Jacobs’ recent quote bears the look of a powerful, caveat-free endorsement of Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, regardless of his 2-6 SEC record in 2015 or the Tigers’ 10-11 overall mark in their last 21 games.
It also creates the perception that Jacobs — Auburn’s AD since December 2004 — has zero interest in pursuing other candidates to run the football program. Within that narrative, Malzahn has always been the right man for this high-pressure job.
But here’s the unspoken reality of the situation:
Jacobs and Malzahn shall remain joined at the hip for at least two more years, citing dual reasons:
1) Auburn has momentarily run out of trump cards with prospective head coaches (read: natural successors).
2) Alabama’s ongoing dynasty (four SEC titles, four national championships since 2009) has a way of turning rational-thinking Auburn alums (full disclosure: I married one) into irrational, emotionally charged zealots, sometimes quick to abandon the program’s long-term vision.
PERCEPTION IS REALITY
It wouldn’t look very good for Auburn (and by extension, Jacobs) if the school quickly dismissed another successful coach after only four seasons.
Yes, Gene Chizik (33-19 overall from 2009-12) posted only one winning conference season in his time with Auburn; and yes, that 0-8 debacle from 2012 was hard to watch.
However, the magical 2010 campaign included a perfect 14-0 mark, an SEC West title, the BCS national championship and a Heisman Trophy for quarterback Cam Newton.
For 99 percent of the FBS schools, Chizik’s championship bounce would have been enough to warrant another year or two at the helm, in hopes of returning the program to prominence. And yet, Auburn dumped the coach immediately after the infamous crash of 2012.
Yes, Malzahn (27-13 overall) has notched only one winning SEC campaign in three years with Auburn; but that 2013 run to glory (shocking wins over UGA and Alabama; an SEC championship; a last-minute loss to Florida State in the BCS national title game) was something to behold — one year removed from the Tigers’ winless SEC finish.
Plus, Malzahn was Auburn’s offensive coordinator (and Newton’s so-called quarterback whisperer) for the 2010 championship season. Once again, the vast majority of Power 5 programs would do anything — above board, of course — to experience two national-title games in the span of four seasons.
And they wouldn’t want to axe the same head coaches soon thereafter, either.
Here’s another feather in Malzahn’s cap: Auburn’s three leading rushers since 2013 (Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne, Petyon Barber) averaged 1,621 total yards and 17 TDs for their spotlight seasons.
In earnest, Malzahn (the Arkansas State head coach in 2012, before soon moving back to Auburn) represented the perfect plug-and-play successor to Chizik, at the first sign of trouble.
But this time around, there are no natural heirs to his throne … due to the presence of one larger-than-life coach.
THE SABAN RATIONALIZATION EFFECT
Let’s take the above rationale one step further: As long as head coach Nick Saban (five national titles since 2003 — one with LSU) remains at Alabama, in search of more championships and NFL-caliber athletes (top-ranked recruiting class for six consecutive years), the Auburn head coach, in turn, will continually draw the short straw with in-state and national media hype.
This would especially ring true, if Auburn began looking for another head coach after the 2016 season.
Can you imagine … a ‘dream’ coaching candidate — like Pete Carroll, Urban Meyer, Jimbo Fisher, Mark Dantonio, Gary Patterson, Jim Mora Jr. or Dabo Swinney — fielding phone calls from Auburn officials sometime in the next 12 months?
It wouldn’t be a pretty sight. In fact, if the agents for all seven candidates were somehow contacted at the same time, Tigers sports interns would need stopwatches to track the fastest ‘no’ responses among the group.
What could possibly motivate a big-time coach to accept the Auburn job … knowing the last two leaders were (hypothetically) shown the door after four years and how the 64-year-old Saban might choose to remain in Tuscaloosa for another 5-7 years? It’s a no-win situation for the long term.
Which brings us back to Jacobs’ endorsement of Malzahn (at this week’s SEC Spring Meetings): The AD doesn’t have plausible access to any escape route … at least for another two years.
Botttom line: Either Jacobs rides things out with Malzahn — hoping and praying for better days — or he gets to watch Auburn’s next AD make the long-term call on a new football coach.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.