Editor’s Note: Story updated on Monday, 12/14/20, at 7:14 p.m. Eastern.
Gus Malzahn’s up-and-down eight-year tenure at Auburn ended today when the school fired him.
“After evaluating the state of the Auburn football program, we’ve decided that it was time to make a change in leadership,” athletics director Allen Greene said in a statement. “We appreciate everything that Gus did for the program over the last eight seasons. We will begin a search immediately for a coach that can help the Auburn program consistently compete at the highest level.”
Auburn president Jay Gogue offered the following remarks: “Coach Malzahn led the Auburn football program with honor and integrity. We appreciate his service to Auburn Athletics, Auburn University and, in particular, our student-athletes.”
Malzahn was able to dodge a pink slip in 2017 when he beat undefeated Georgia and unbeaten Alabama at Jordan-Hare Stadium in a span of three weeks to improbably win the SEC West. That earned him a fat new contract — seven years and $49 million — with a huge buyout ($21 million, half of which has to be paid in the next 30 days) that made him untouchable when the fan based wanted him gone (again) after the Tigers went 8-5 in 2018.
Whether the school was going to make a move on Malzahn last season is unclear, but he removed all doubt (much like he did in 2017) by beating Alabama 48-45 and simultaneously denying AU’s arch rival a spot in the College Football Playoff.
When Auburn lost 30-22 at South Carolina on Oct. 17 to fall to 2-2, the annual plank walk for Malzahn was off to an early start. A solid win at Ole Miss followed by a 48-11 shellacking of LSU improved the Tigers to 4-2.
Then he opted for a late field goal to give Auburn a spread cover in a 30-17 home win over Tennessee as a 10-point home favorite. At that point, AU was on a three-game winning streak and took a 5-2 record into the Iron Bowl in Tuscaloosa. It seemed as if Malzahn had a better-than-decent chance to avoid a pink slip.
However, Alabama took Auburn behind the woodshed at Bryant-Denny Stadium in a 42-13 beatdown. Next, Auburn let a 20-14 fourth-quarter lead get away in a 31-20 home loss to Texas A&M.
Despite last night’s 24-10 win at Mississippi St., Malzahn was sent packing earlier today.
His tenure ends with a 68-35 overall record. Malzahn took Auburn to seven consecutive bowl games, including an appearance in the last BCS Championship Game in January of 2014 during his first season at the helm. Malzahn is one of only three AU coaches and the first since 1907 to never have a losing season, but he lost at least four games every year with the exception of the team’s 12-2 finish in 2013.
Before feeling sorry for Malzahn, consider a couple of things. First, he’s going to get a paycheck North of $10 million in the next 30 days. Second, he’ll have plenty of options.
In fact, he might be the head coach at another SEC school before he collects that huge paycheck. Malzahn is certainly a viable candidate for the Tennessee job, which I expect to come open before lunch next Sunday.
Auburn has named defensive coordinator Kevin Steele’s as the team’s interim head coach. He is reportedly a legit candidate for the job, although I’d be shocked if he is any higher than fourth of fifth in the pecking order.
The names to watch for the Auburn gig start with Liberty HC Hugh Freeze, who has turned the Flames around in short order. With Malzahn out, the only current SEC coach that’s beaten Nick Saban is Ed Orgeron. However, Freeze has a pair of wins over Saban from his time at Ole Miss.
Yes, his tenure with the Rebels ended in disgrace, but he wasn’t specifically identified by the NCAA in its report about Ole Miss’s institutional issues. Freeze went 39-25 in Oxford, but the school was forced to vacate 27 of those wins and was hit with heavy sanctions from the NCAA.
Freeze resigned when the school discovered that he had used a school-issued cell phone to call escort services over a five-year stretch. He went two years without a job before Liberty hired him in 2019.
Freeze has compiled a 17-6 record at Liberty, including a 9-1 mark this year that includes a walk-off win at Virginia Tech on a late field goal. The Flames’ only defeat was a 15-14 loss at North Carolina State, which finished the season 8-3 and on a four-game winning streak.
Freeze is appreciative of the opportunity Liberty gave him and is being paid well. Nevertheless, he acknowledged in a recent interview that he’ll always have the competitive itch to run an elite Power Five program again.
The question is whether he’ll find Auburn or Tennessee the more attractive job. Both gigs are pressure cookers to say the least. Both teams have to play and recruit against Alabama every year. Both have passionate fan bases, great facilities and everything you need to win big.
If Freeze isn’t Auburn’s guy for whatever reasons, other candidates could include Oregon HC Mario Cristobal, who has great recruiting connections from South Florida to the Northwest. He spent several seasons on Saban’s staff at Alabama as recruiting coordinator.
You might also hear names like Louisiana’s Billy Napier, Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy, Alabama OC Steve Sarkisian or former NFL head coaches Dan Quinn and Bill O’Brien, who recruited well during his two-year run as Penn State’s HC.
Although I doubt it’ll happen, I’ll throw out one more name as a sleeper candidate: Lane Kiffin.
Would it be a bad look to turn and burn on Ole Miss after one season? Of course. Kiffin has brought an exciting brand of football to Oxford in his first season and Matt Corral, one of the SEC’s premier quarterbacks, has already said he’s returning to school in 2020. Kiffin has clearly matured in recent years and unless he just has me fooled, I don’t think he’ll do Ole Miss dirty even if Auburn comes calling.
With all of that said, history tells us a lot about college football. And Auburn’s tradition and history is much greater than Ole Miss’s. Furthermore, Kiffin has pulled this act before, bolting on Tennessee after only one season to take his dream job at USC. Also, Auburn has taken the Rebels’ coach before, hiring Tommy Tuberville away in 1999.
Could Kiffin also be a candidate at Tennessee? Maybe.
For those that thought the financial crunch brought down on college athletic programs by the global pandemic would protect SEC coaches, well, you thought wrong. The SEC Silly Season always delivers.
Three coaches have already gone down, another will taste a pink slip within hours (if not minutes) of losing at home to Texas A&M on Saturday and we currently have two openings (at Vanderbilt and Auburn, with a third at UT expected by this time next week).
In the next 7-10 days, we might witness a bidding war between Auburn and Tennessee for the services of Freeze, who appears poised to get another SEC job just 4.5 years after his shameful exit from the conference.