By the time it’s all said and done, boredom is going to cost Auburn about $40 million. Not all at once, of course, and not from one person or one line item on a budget. But in the end, when you add it all up after eight years of Gus Malzahn, the boosters of college football’s most impetuous university will spend $40 million for the privilege of being titillated by the unknown.
In the middle of a pandemic, at a time of unprecedented austerity in higher education, Auburn’s decision to get rid of Malzahn on Sunday will go down as perhaps the most Auburn thing in the history of college football.
Malzahn, who was dancing in the locker room Saturday after a win at Mississippi State to go 6-4, had not dragged Auburn to the bottom of the SEC. His recruiting classes hadn’t slipped below the historical norm. There was no real danger of the program falling off the cliff like it did in 2012 when Gene Chizik was fired just two years after winning a national championship.
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Gus Malzahn coached Auburn for eight seasons. (Photo: Justin Ford, USA TODAY Sports)
Malzahn’s biggest crime? He got stale. He got boring. Or, more accurately, the people who pay the freight for Auburn athletics got bored with a program that wasn’t as good as Alabama or Georgia and was perhaps about to be dislodged in the pecking order by Texas A&M.
It wasn’t so much that Malzahn went 9-4 last year that got him on the hot seat, it’s that he could no longer create the illusion of doing much better. And in the warped world of Auburn football, no price is too high — even in a pandemic — to keep that fantasy alive.
Not that Malzahn made it difficult for Auburn to say goodbye. He could come across as aloof, distant, disinterested in some of the basic functions of being a head coach at a high-profile program. His offense ran hot and cold, and the development of quarterback Bo Nix the last two years was slower than it should have been. The fact he went 2-7 against Georgia (with none of those wins in Athens) and 3-5 against LSU didn’t help.
But unlike most Auburn regimes, there was no major public scandal on Malzahn’s watch. And he beat Nick Saban three times, which you can pretty much guarantee the next Auburn coach won’t be able to do.
On its merits, the firing isn’t completely indefensible. But the cost and the context make it obscene, particularly when Auburn had a chance three years ago to let Malzahn walk when Arkansas offered him a huge deal.
Instead, seduced by a win over Alabama and a trip to the SEC championship game, Auburn gave him an irresponsible seven-year, $49 million contract. Within about three weeks, when Auburn lost to UCF in the Peach Bowl, you kind of figured they’d eventually regret it.
Even with Auburn’s uninspiring 2020 season, when it was clear the Tigers were a cut below the SEC’s top tier, most people in the college sports industry figured Malzahn would hang on another season. Mostly it’s because financials are brutal in this environment: $21 million for Malzahn alone, with half that due in the next 30 days, not to mention $5 million for defensive coordinator Kevin Steele and around $1.4 million for offensive coordinator Chad Morris.
If you’re laying out that kind of money for Urban Meyer or Bob Stoops, that’s one thing. But Auburn’s likely path forward revolves around a different tier of coach, including an obvious name in Hugh Freeze whose redemption tour at Liberty has lifted him off the SEC’s unofficial blacklist.
Of all the programs in the country, Auburn ranks very low on the list of those who might be sheepish about the litany of NCAA violations and penalties left in Freeze’s wake at Ole Miss. This is a school, after all, that was desperate enough to give Bruce Pearl a shot after his dismissal at Tennessee and even now is proudly hiding the dirty details from a Notice of Allegations related to Auburn’s involvement in the FBI investigation into college basketball corruption. (Auburn has self-imposed a postseason ban for this year, suggesting the allegations are more serious than publicly known.)
In other words, the optics at Auburn do not matter. Not even in the slightest. They just want to win.
But whether it’s Freeze or Louisiana’s Billy Napier or Oregon’s Mario Cristobal or some other coach not currently on the radar, the only guarantee at Auburn is that they’ll make enough money to take the sting out of their eventual firing.
Auburn is a very good coaching job, but as long as Saban decides he wants to stay in the state, everyone except the rich guys writing the big checks knows the score. Maybe deep down they know it, too. But as long as they get the thrill of thinking about what's possible, it’s worth the investment.
Malzahn could no longer give them that feeling. Even in a pandemic year, everything has a price.
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