ATMORE, Ala. — When Gene Chizik fell, he fell hard at Auburn.
Two years removed from winning a national championship, he went winless in the SEC and was fired in December 2012. The quick pull of the plug has, fairly or not, cast a shadow on fourth-year coach Gus Malzahn as he tries to right a ship that has been headed south since he led the Tigers to a national runner-up finish in 2013.
Things are not dire at Auburn, but losing nine of its last 11 SEC games certainly doesn’t build confidence. The perception is Auburn administrators could easily make a quick decision and look for a new coach if things spiral out of control again — all because of Chizik’s firing four years ago. Athletics director Jay Jacobs tried to quiet that talk by providing Malzahn a one-year extension through the 2020 season on April 1.
On Tuesday, Jacobs spoke more about the perception of the program after Chizik’s firing and whether he would pull the plug again if the team disappoints in 2016.
“This entire league is about winning, but right now what we need is stability,” Jacobs said outside the Escambia County Auburn Club. “We need somebody here who stands for the right things like Gus does, the best offensive mind in the nation, taken us to two national championships — which very few in this league can say that’s happened to them; only two, I believe. So that’s what it’s about. It’s not about perception. It’s not about what the past is; it’s about what we need right now moving forward. We need him to be our coach for a long time, and we’re going to provide him with the resources to get that done. We’ve got to produce on the field.”
Again, there’s the caveat: Auburn has to win on the field.
Chizik was fired 17 months after receiving a new contract worth $3.5 million per year. Malzahn’s deal calls for $4.75 million per year through July 2020. Chizik’s firing came after a historical fall from grace in 2012. No team had lost as many games (9) within two years of winning a national title since the Associated Press poll launched in 1936.
Auburn has yet to have a losing season under Malzahn, whose last sub-.500 season was in 1992 as a small-town high school coach in Arkansas. The Tigers, however, barely managed an overtime win against FCS foe Jacksonville State last season and avoided a losing record by beating Memphis, 31-10, in the Birmingham Bowl.
Malzahn is 27-13 in three seasons as the Tigers’ coach and has won only six SEC games since going 7-1 in the conference in 2013. Auburn was 12-2 in 2013 and fell 13 seconds short of winning a national title against Florida State at the Rose Bowl.
“He’s our guy,” Jacobs said. “We need stability at Auburn, and so we’re counting on him to get it done. We’re going to give him the resources that are necessary to get it done, and now he has the confidence that he’s going to be here, so that’s helpful in any business, particularly coaching, and he’s got a great staff with nine assistant coaches that he’s very comfortable with. We’re going to support him at the highest level. We’ve got to win ballgames, we know that, but at the same time we’re going to do it the right way, the Auburn way, and make sure that our student-athletes have a great experience and that our fans are proud of how our student-athletes behave every day. That doesn’t mean we’re not going to have mistakes; they’re 18-22 year olds and we certainly all look at you guys and know you’ve made mistakes along the way, just as I have, but at the same time we’re going to represent them the right way.”