A contract as hefty as the extension signed Sunday by Gus Malzahn needs a nickname. Call it Bert’s Revenge.
No, Bret Bielema hasn’t exacted any vengeance on his former SEC West coaching adversary. It’s quite the opposite, actually, as Malzahn now finds himself among the highest-paid coaches in the sport.
But if Auburn wanted to reward Malzahn’s outstanding 2017 season without snapping the bank in two, any hope went out the window as soon as Bielema found himself dismissed from the Arkansas head-coaching job.
It’s not hard to form a reasonable guess on how we likely got from that moment to Malzahn signing a new 7-year deal valued by multiple credible reports at a staggering $49 million. With Bielema gone, Malzahn’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, approaches Arkansas brass to say the Natural State native and former Razorback walk-on would be interested in coming home to continue his coaching career, if the money is right.
He tells them an initial ballpark figure isn’t right enough, he tells them that just another million (or 10) could make all the difference, he receives an offer the Sultan of Brunei would describe as “a lot money, seriously.”
Sexton takes the offer to Auburn and tells Jay Jacobs, Steven Leath and Co. that if the Tigers don’t match it — or at least come close — Malzahn’s going to walk. He loves it here, but he’ll do it. He’s from Arkansas. You going to call his bluff?
So, hope you enjoyed that 56-3 victory two seasons ago, Auburn. Hope that 52-20 win this year treated you well. They played their part in nudging Bielema out the door, and now Auburn’s on the hook for $49 million.
If the opening’s at any other school, or the opening’s in most other years, Auburn doesn’t have to bid against a John Rockefeller offer. But the opening was at Arkansas, the opening did come just as Malzahn swept an undefeated Amen Corner. Timing truly is everything.
But even if the numbers on Malzahn’s new contract can be easily explained, it doesn’t mean they can be easily digested.
Auburn gave a seven-year $49 mill deal to a coach it was thinking about firing a month ago.
This has been the drunkest week in the history of college football.
— Ralph D. Russo (@ralphDrussoAP) December 4, 2017
Gus Malzahn gets a 7-year $50 Million Dollar contract from Auburn. pic.twitter.com/yenwbUYvq4
— Trey Wallace (@TreyW_Radio) December 4, 2017
Malzahn’s reported contract would put him among just four other coaches making $7 million or more per season: Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Alabama’s Nick Saban. With three of those coaches having won a national title and the fourth having once taken a team to the Super Bowl, it’s not surprising even some Auburn fans have balked at the price tag. Is is worth paying Gus Malzahn more than Ohio State pays Urban Meyer?
In a vacuum, the answer might be no. But for Auburn football, in early December 2017 — with Arkansas ready to pay him every dollar of that contract if the Tigers don’t — the answer is yes. Absolutely, unequivocally, a hundred times yes. Yes yes yes yes yes.
The primary reason is simple: if Malzahn had left, God alone knows how the Tigers would have replaced him. With Fisher and Dan Mullen off the market, even semi-proven commodities are scarce. It’s not hard at all to imagine Justin Fuente or Willie Taggart telling Auburn thanks-but-no-thanks (especially when Florida State’s looking for a coach, too), forcing the Tigers to take a hard look at the likes of Mike Norvell, Brent Venables, Chad Morris, Lane Kiffin or Bill Clark.
Those are fine coaches, one and all. But of that group — or any other group of candidates likely to say yes — only Kiffin has Power 5 head coaching experience, and that experience amounted to a 17-12 Pac-12 record at the Pac-12’s cushiest gig. Malzahn’s new contract doesn’t scream “value,” but would you rather pay Norvell or Morris $5 million to watch them learn on the SEC job … or Malzahn $7 million to keep doing what he’s doing?
Remember, too, that what Malzahn’s been doing for the majority of his time in Auburn has more than met reasonable expectations. Including his time as Gene Chizik’s offensive coordinator, Malzahn has spent eight seasons on Auburn’s sideline. Three of those seasons have produced:
- Auburn’s first and only national title since 1957, led primarily by Malzahn’s offense and the quarterback — Cam Newton — that Malzahn helped recruit and guide to a Heisman Trophy.
- The greatest regular season in 2013 ever experienced by a college football fan base in the modern history of the sport*
- Wins over undefeated, top-ranked Georgia and undefeated, top-ranked Alabama in a span of 15 days.
One of the other five ended in the Sugar Bowl, meaning half of Auburn’s seasons with Malzahn involved have featured either a BCS or New Year’s Six bowl appearance. Since Saban’s breakthrough 2008 season with Alabama, Auburn has beaten out the Tide for three SEC West titles with Malzahn — two more than the entire rest of the division combined.
No SEC coach, give or take a Hugh Freeze, has enjoyed more head-to-head success against Saban. Malzahn remains a likable figure, fielding likable teams, with minimal off-field problems and the support of former players.
My opinion is just that, but I know @CoachGusMalzahn better than 99.9% of y’all. I love him as a family man, a coach and a leader of men. Anyone who wants @AuburnFootball to win, and win with integrity, should support Gus. Man, screw opinion, that’s FACT. #WDE
— Andrew McCain (@dragon_mccain) December 3, 2017
Oh, and let’s not forget the future, where Malzahn’s steady recruiting, outstanding defensive staff hires, and better quarterback depth should have the team poised for 10-win seasons for years to come. On paper, now’s an especially lousy time to undergo a major program overhaul.
It’s true that a Malzahn replacement could bring all of the above to the table, or more. But there’s less-than-no-guarantee they would. The birds in the bush still aren’t worth the proven one in hand, even when it costs $7 million a year.
Someday, Auburn may still curse the lingering specter of Bert’s Revenge. But today shouldn’t be that day, not when the numbers on Malzahn’s extension — eye-popping as they may be — aren’t a sign of mismanagement half-so-much asone that Sexton had the Tigers directly over the proverbial barrel.
Malzahn got paid. Auburn got its man. Both sides won.
And as a result, both sides can look forward to more winning down the road.
*Sure, this sounds like a ridiculous homertastic claim, but the key word here is “experienced.” What other fan base got to watch its team go from 3-9 one season to 12-1 the next, with both its two wins over its archrivals coming on plays that rank among the most iconic in college football history? What season has ever given its fans more to celebrate? What season has ever made its fans more delighted? The contention here — albeit the not-fully-researched-conclusion — is that there is no such season.