Auburn finally gets that Gus had to go
Auburn was right. Late but right. After eight years of spectacular but temporary firework displays tempered by longer stretches of maddening misfires, it was time for Gus Malzahn to go. It was time to thank him and send him on his way, richer than most men dream and hopefully wiser for the experience.
After the conclusion of a far-from-solid 6-4 season, Auburn submitted to the inevitable Sunday. It cut ties with a good man who's not a bad coach, who was the right coach for Auburn in 2013 but ever since has routinely cast aspersions on that conclusion.
Pay no attention to anyone who feigns indignation at the news or casts aspersions on Auburn as an institution because it's decided to pay Malzahn more than $21 million, half of it within 30 days per the contract, not to coach its football team a day longer with a pandemic still afoot. That's a failure of Auburn leadership circa 2017.
A failure of Auburn leadership 2020 would've been to keep Malzahn and expect anything better in the future than seasons with at least four losses after seven - count 'em: seven - of them in a row. You can hurt the bottom line in ways other than fulfilling a buyout, and Auburn fans had long stopped standing in line for a ride on the Gus Bus.
If only someone had thought to put former school president Steven Leath on the hook for part of that ridiculous buyout as part of his own overly generous severance agreement. He had accomplices, but three years ago it was Leath who joined the expansive fraternity of university administrators hoodwinked by superagent Jimmy Sexton. Sexton and his clients always win, sometimes even after they lose the SEC Championship Game by three touchdowns.
What has Auburn gotten in the three years since giving Malzahn that unwarranted seven-year, $49-million deal? Records of 8-5, 9-4 and 6-4. Finishes of fifth, third and third in the SEC West. Three years of mediocrity interrupted only by the magical 2019 Unfair at Jordan-Hare.
And the last three years haven't been all that different from the years prior. Under Malzahn, Auburn has been ranked in the AP Top 10 at some point during each of his eight seasons. That's good. Auburn has finished in the AP Top 10 only twice, at No. 2 in 2013 and at No. 10 in 2017. Auburn has finished unranked in the AP poll three times. That's not nearly good enough for a $7 million man.
Whether shuffling offensive coordinators and retiring and unretiring his own clipboard, failing to maintain his status as an offensive guru while earning a rep as a notorious non-developer of high school quarterbacks, Malzahn simply was no longer good enough at the thing he was supposed to be good at. He was a nice guy who would never finish last (if you don't count 2015) but who, since his dramatic 2013 debut, would never again make a serious bid to finish first in the league or in the land.
Blame the emergence of Georgia and LSU and the unprecedented sustained excellence of Alabama if you like, but it's hard to square the salary with the performance, the three wins over Nick Saban in Auburn with the oh for Tuscaloosa, Athens and Baton Rouge. Don't even get me started about Tennessee 2018 and South Carolina 2020.
And so a search begins.
The encouraging news for the Auburn Family is that every new coach in the modern era has hit some impressive heights, typically early in his tenure. Pat Dye won the SEC and coulda woulda shoulda added the natty in his third year. Terry Bowden started 20-0. Tommy Tuberville won the SEC West in Year 2 and ran the table in Year 6. Gene Chizik hoisted the BCS National Championship crystal in his second year. Malzahn was one play away from doing the same in his debut season as the boss.
Dye sustained the program longer than the others, but Auburn has everything even a solid coach needs to win big. This is a very good job with great potential.
Prediction: Malzahn will coach again and win again, though maybe not at this level. Auburn will win big again, and if the past 40 years are any indication, it won't take long. The eternal question on the Plain remains. Can the new coach make it rain Charmin at Toomer's Corner and make it last?