AUBURN, Ala. — It takes a little bit of effort to locate Gus Malzahn’s name on the list of highest-paid college football coaches.
You have to scroll all the way down to No. 32 in the USA Today chart before Malzahn pops up. Further, 11 of those listed ahead of Auburn’s head coach reside in the same conference. But there’s no argument: No coach has in the SEC has given his school its money’s worth this year like Malzahn.
Sure, making more than $2.4 million a year means the Arkansas native isn’t hurting for money. When put in the larger context of the largesse of the SEC, however, Malzahn’s salary comes at a downright bargain when compared to two of the top five on the list, Arkansas’ Bret Bielema (third at $5.15 million this year) and Tennessee’s Butch Jones (fourth at $4.86 million). It should be noted, of course, that factored into both Bielema’s and Jones’ pay is the buyouts that are being paid to their former schools in Wisconsin and Cincinnati, respectively.
After you’re done taking in those numbers, try these on for size: Malzahn has more wins this season on his own (8-1 overall, 4-1 SEC) than Bielema and Jones combined (7-11 overall, 1-9 in conference play). What’s more, all three are in their first year at their respective schools.
And one can’t help but note the ironic timing of the salary story in Malzahn’s case, coming one week after his team decisively beat Bielema’s squad (on the road, might I add) 35-17. This Saturday, he has a chance to do the same against Jones, as Auburn travels to Knoxville, Tenn.
So what’s the reason for the wide chasm in success separating Malzahn and his fellow first-year colleagues?
Malzahn wouldn’t dispute that his familiarity with the Tigers — after serving as the team’s offensive coordinator from 2009-11 — has helped a great deal.
“I recruited probably about half of them specifically for this offense,” he said of his hurry-up, no-huddle scheme. “Even when I came back, any time you change systems, it still takes a little bit for guys to get back adjusted. And about halfway through spring I think it started to click a little bit and guys seemed more comfortable.”
Jones, on the other hand, had no such advantage. Taking over a Volunteer offense that lost its starting quarterback and top four receivers from last season did him no favors. Neither did having to overhaul the defense, shifting from a 3-4 look used by Derek Dooley’s staff the previous year to the 4-3 base formation favored by new defensive coordinator John Jancek.
Of course, those problems pale in comparison to a lack of able bodies, which Jones has hit on repeatedly this season — and he did so again this week, saying on Wednesday that Tennessee had “absolutely zero depth.”
Add all of those factors on top of the expectations of a Volunteer fan base starved to return to what it feels to be its rightful place as a perennial contender both in the SEC and nationally, and Jones admitted the only way he has dealt with the pressure is by reverting to his “process.”
“It's all about developing our football team and our mentality,” he said. “We want it (to win) right now. Our fan base wants it right now, our coaching staff, our former players, our 'Vols For Life,' but we're growing through that learning curve of really what it takes to play winning football.”
Not that Malzahn would know of such headaches. It’s taken all of one season for him to get Auburn back to its winning ways, making the disaster that was the 2012 campaign appear as a mere blip on the radar, a near-unbelievable aberration just two years removed from capturing a national championship.
If the Tigers keep winning — and get some losses from undefeated teams in other conferences — they might get a chance to play for their second national title in four years. But no one should profess to know how the rest of Auburn’s season will unfold. Predicting the future is a risky proposition irrespective of the issue at hand.
One thing seems like a sure-fire bet, though.
In the coming years, it won’t take nearly as long to scroll down and find Malzahn’s name on the list of most well-compensated coaches in the land.
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