The rumors, for the most part, have died down. As with most rumors, they were probably partly truth and partly wishful thinking of well intending Auburn fans and insiders. Whatever the veracity, all that matters now is Gus Malzahn remains Auburn’s head football coach and already is gearing toward the 2019 season.
Malzahn’s first news conference to address preparation for the Music City Bowl had little to do with previewing Purdue and much to do with dispelling rumors that he had agreed to restructure his contract to reduce his staggering buyout in exchange for keeping his job for another year. Even more unusual was that Malzahn himself brought the matter up.
“My contract has not changed one bit,” he said. “I was never told I had to change my contract to keep my job. I’ve got the support of our athletic director (Allen Greene) and president (Steven Leath). There’s nobody hamstringing me from doing our jobs.”
Maybe that’s true, maybe not. Or maybe Malzahn was merely playing with semantics — “I was never told” being the operative phrase. Maybe it was his agent, Jimmy Sexton. Maybe it was just a request. Either way, it’s hard to blame Malzahn for not acquiescing. A contract is a contract. Either he’s the head coach with full endorsement of his bosses — at least publicly — or Auburn can write that first check for $16 million. Nobody forced Leath to give in to Sexton’s demands.
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Malzahn seemed genuinely more upbeat and relaxed at his news conference than he has in some time. Of course, it’s hard to be too upbeat in the midst of a five-loss season that began with playoff hopes.
“I think the bottom line is when you go 7-5 and you have aspirations of winning the championship, which we did, and go 7-5, no one’s going to be happy,” Malzahn said. “I’m not happy. I know our fans aren’t. But I will tell you this. We’ve got, really, a lot to look forward to next year. We’ve got the majority of our team coming back. Recruiting’s going really good. Not just good, but really good.”
Oh, yeah. By the way, the Purdue game. Really want to win that. Need to win that. Beyond issuing the customary opponent compliments, Malzahn spent most of his news conference discussing plans for 2019, which began with replacing offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, who escaped … I mean left -- to take the same job at Kansas, with Kenny Dillingham.
Malzahn called him “one of the up and coming superstars in college football.” Malzahn discovered Dillingham last offseason when he observed Memphis practice.
“It was very impressive with his energy, his detail, just made a great impression on me. Then I got a chance to go watch practice, watch him do his thing, really left that practice field thinking, ‘Hey, that guy right there, I’d like to hire him some day. I think it’s a perfect fit for us from the standpoint he did the same thing for Mike Norvell he’s going to do for me.”
Yeah, that’s the twist. Dillingham will coach quarterbacks and help with game-planning. Malzahn will go back to calling offensive plays.
“The demands of this job each year gets more challenging,” Malzahn said. “But sometimes as a coach, you gotta evaluate where you’re at. Sometimes things change, and they have. So I just evaluate it where we’re at. It’s best for us if I’m calling plays. I love to do that. That’s really who I am at my core. I have a lot of good people around me to help me to the other things of being the head coach. I feel very confident of that.”
Jarrett Stidham announced he will enter the NFL draft. He will play against Purdue, but Malzahn made it clear that backups Malik Willis, Joey Gatewood and Cord Sandberg will get more practice reps than usual. The competition will heat up in the spring when Bo Nix, the highly regarded recruit, will be on campus.
“I’m confident with the guys we have and obviously the guys we got coming in,” Malzahn said.
He didn’t rule out the possibility of adding a graduate transfer.
“I’ve been here when we’ve won championships. I’ve been here when we’ve had tough seasons. Our fans expect to win championships, and I do too.”
Malzahn compared this offseason to three years ago, when the Tigers had to beat Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl to avoid a losing season. The next year they went to the Sugar Bowl. The year after they were a win away from playing in the College Football Playoff.
Malzahn doesn’t have to win the SEC next year to keep his job. Reasonable Auburn fans understand that Alabama and Georgia right now have more resources and are arguably the top two programs in college football. The schedule is tough with road games at Texas A&M, Florida and LSU along with the season opener against Oregon in Dallas. But anything short of nine wins would rekindle the discussion of a buyout.
“The Auburn folks expect us to compete for championships and expect us to go on the field and play good, disciplined football,” he said. “That’s what we need to do.”
That much is indisputable.