For a while, it was mostly a marriage of convenience. Auburn needed a coach who could excite the fans. Gus Malzahn needed an opportunity to prove that’s he more than a high school coach or an offensive coordinator.
At times, it has been the perfect match. Other times, it seemed that both would be better off if they went their separate ways. Many people with a deep understanding of Auburn athletics – especially after that second-half collapse at LSU – thought that Malzahn coached most of this season just one unacceptable loss away from getting fired.
Such ancient history now. It’s not so much that beating Georgia and Alabama made everyone forget the LSU loss, or overlook the fact that even with this resurgent season, Malzahn is 26-18 overall and 15-18 against FBS competition since his 19-3 start at Auburn.
Rather, it’s simply this:
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Auburn is now stuck with Malzahn. For better or for worse. For richer or for poorer. Forsaking all others. OK, so maybe not till death do they part. But at least five years or so.
A new seven-year, $50 million contract grants such assurance. Even if they part ways before then, Malzahn is likely to stay around for at least four or five more seasons.
What choice Auburn have? Arkansas supposedly was prepared to hire Malzahn once Auburn lost to Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. Then the Tigers would have found themselves as late entries into the coaching search carousel with the few hot candidates already gone. So who would Auburn have been able to hire that’s an upgrade from Malzahn? Especially with a brand new university president and a lame duck athletic director.
The timing to launch a head coaching search could not have been worse.
Never has the bird-in-hand principle been more applicable. Here’s what you get with Malzahn: a proven head coach and recruiter who understands the unique inner workings of Auburn.
If that sounds like a back-handed endorsement of Malzahn, so be it.
I’ve always liked Gus. Yeah, he doesn’t exactly fit the mold of an SEC head coach. Some of his sideline facial expressions look a bit goofy. He’s prone to hyperbole when praising his players and coaches. And that offense – with its high school roots and lack of sophistication – can look downright ugly when everything doesn’t work just perfectly.
Here’s the flip-side, though. His teams have played for two SEC championships in five season, winning one. He came within one play of winning the national championship in 2013. He has fixed the program’s biggest deficiency by turning over the defense to Kevin Steele. He finally relinquished control of the offense by hiring Chip Lindsey. And ditched the sweater vest, so give him points for that.
One thing is inarguable: Auburn football is in much better shape than it was when Malzahn was hired. Its schedule is significantly tougher with Jimbo Fisher going to Texas A&M, Arkansas hiring Chad Morris and Kirby Smart apparently building something special at Georgia. Even so, Malzahn still has a chance to keep Auburn nationally competitive and even win a national championship.
But Malzahn must do three things:
- Recruit better at quarterback: Malzahn has had three quarterbacks at Auburn who could excel in his offense: Cam Newton, Nick Marshall and Jarrett Stidham. All three had different skill sets. But all three were transfers from other programs. That’s not sustainable. Malzahn needs to sign high school quarterbacks who can run his offense.
- Sign more running backs: Auburn is a running team. In Malzahn’s five seasons as head coach, the Tigers have led the SEC in rushing plays three times – including a staggering 729 in 2013. They were second in 2014 and third in 2015. Note the correlation. As the win total sagged, so did the number of running plays. If Georgia and Alabama can sign one or two blue chip running backs a year, so can Auburn. But asking a kid to carry the ball 30 times a game in this age is a recruiting detriment.
- Continue to replenish the coaching staff: That’s every head coach’s challenge. Success leads to other programs raiding your staff. Chances are, Steele won’t be at Auburn much longer.
One assistant Auburn should target is Columbus’ own Dell McGee, who played at Auburn and currently is the running backs coach at Georgia. He’s one of the best recruiters in college football. But he’s more than a recruiter, and more than a running backs coach. It would be unfair to typecast him as such.
If Malzahn does all of that, this marriage just might develop into something beautiful for both parties. If not, well, let’s worry about that five years from now.