Ultimately, Gene Chizik wasn't fired for overseeing the worst season in Auburn football since the Korean War.
Sure, going 3-9 -- the best of those three wins requiring overtime to hold off Louisiana-Monroe -- played heavily into it. And capping it off with a 49-0 loss to Alabama, which could have been significantly worse, confirmed the obvious.
Big-time college football is about winning and losing, and losing became not only commonplace but expected under Chizik.
Set aside that one magical season of 2010 and the Tigers were dreadfully average -- 19-19. Their SEC record was abysmal: 7-17.
All of that is awful. But Chizik lost more than football games.
He lost hope for the fans. He lost the confidence of his superiors.
Jay Jacobs, the Auburn athletic director whose own job security is tenuous, was asked at what point did he contemplate making a coaching change.
"I've been thinking about it all year," Jacobs said.
The Arkansas loss at home, when thousands of fans started trudging to the parking lots in the fourth quarter, convinced Jacobs a change was needed. That was followed by losses to Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. The last month of the season was unwatchable.
The Tigers surrendered an astounding 150 points to their last last three SEC opponents -- Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama. Despite that, there still was the belief that Auburn had at least sufficient talent to at least be competitive in the SEC.
As horrific as this season was -- arguably the Tigers' worst ever -- a case could have been made to keep Chizik for one more year. Firing him jeopardizes a current recruiting class that was shaping up nicely. Rivals.com has it ranked 10th-best in the country (which is good for sixth-best in the SEC). The Tigers leaned heavily on freshmen and sophomores. They finally found themselves a quarterback, Jonathan Wallace, the freshman from Central-Phenix City, who was the silver lining behind this hurricane.
A productive offseason of training could have led to a winning season next year, which could have provided a step back to national prominence in 2014.
And heaven knows that deferring this decision until next year would have been financially prudent. The collective buyouts and severance deals of the entire coaching staff carry a price tag of $11 million. That will go down as the coaches land new jobs, but it's still pricey.
To make this move a year too late could set the program back even further. Imagine that. Imagine a full offseason of discouragement from the fans. Imagine losing the season opener next year against Washington State with 10,000 empty seats at kickoff.
"We could not risk falling further behind," said Jacobs.
Before Sunday's announcement, despondent Auburn fans posting on websites called for others to not purchase their 2013 season tickets unless Chizik was gone.
Chizik lost hope, but he never even had the broad-based support of the fans. He was 5-19 in two seasons at Iowa State. Jacobs insisted that record was an aberration and hired him to replace Tommy Tuberville.
There was no faith that things would get any better next season if Chizik stayed. What on Chizik's resume was there to suggest that next year would be any different?
A change was unavoidable. Firing Chizik was the easy half of this transition. Hiring the right replacement is critical. They need someone who understands the unique culture of football in Alabama. They need someone who will be undaunted going head to head with Alabama's Nick Saban for the state's top prospects.
Jacobs said lack of head coaching experience will not be an eliminating factor. All of those factors point to Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart as a logical leading candidate. Smart would bring instant credibility and comfort with in-state coaches and top prospects. The biggest question about Smart is timing. If Alabama beats Georgia and earns a place in the national championship game, will Saban allow him to interview with Auburn before the BCS game? If not, would Auburn be willing to wait until after January 7 when the game is played?
"We don't have a timeframe in mind. We're going to take the time that's necessary to find the person with those three things I mentioned -- a proven track record, somebody who plays by the rules, and someone who will continue to build on the student-athletes' success academically."
Jacobs enlisted Pat Sullivan and Bo Jackson, Auburn's most beloved heroes, and former player Mac Crawford, a successful businessman, to help with the search. Jacobs said of Crawford, "He is a CEO/turnaround expert, and we need a little turnaround here."
-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.