Why did Auburn fire Gus Malzahn? Pandemic buyout, recruiting raise questions about decision
College football’s longest-running game of chicken has finally ended: Gus Malzahn has been fired at Auburn following a 6-4 regular season in 2020.
Auburn on Sunday announced it had fired Malzahn, who finishes with a career record of 68-35 (39-27 in SEC play). His final game was a 24-10 over Mike Leach and Mississippi State on Saturday.
“After evaluating the state of the Auburn football program, we’ve decided that it was time to make a change in leadership,” Auburn 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.”
Said Joe Greene, president of Auburn University: “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. We wish him and Kristi all the best.”
The move, which has been debated seemingly every year after Malzahn led the Tigers to the 2014 BCS championship game — in his first season — still comes as a surprise amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Auburn said it would pay him the remainder of his contract, a reported $21.45 million. This, during a pandemic that has vastly reduced the income produced due to reduced ticket sales.
Even without the optics of Malzahn’s tremendous buyout, Auburn’s move may still surprise fans and observers alike: He is one of the more accomplished coaches in the SEC, leading the Tigers to the 2013 SEC championship, a berth in the 2014 BCS championship game and a 2017 SEC West division title. He never suffered a losing record, but often — to the frustration of fans and administration — failed to get the most from his teams, which broke through for double digit-win seasons only twice.
Malzahn’s bowl record was decidedly less successful than his regular-season tenure. Though he led the Tigers to a bowl game in each of his seven years on the Plains — including the BCS championship in 2013 and New Year’s Day 6 bowls in 2016 (Sugar Bowl) and 2017 (Peach Bowl) — he was 2-5 all time in bowl games at Auburn.
Perhaps Malzahn’s best metric was his record against Nick Saban and Alabama: At 3-5 all time, Malzahn easily had the most success against Saban. Indeed, LSU coach Ed Orgeron (1-5) is the only other SEC coach to claim a victory against Saban. That raises the question: Who could Auburn possibly look to replace Malzahn in its attempt to pull even with the Crimson Tide?
The most prevalent answer in the midst of his firing is Liberty coach Hugh Freeze, formerly of Ole Miss. He is one of only two coaches (the other being former LSU coach Les Miles) to beat Saban in consecutive seasons since he took over at Alabama in 2007. Those wins came in 2014 and 2015, games in which the Rebels combined for 760 yards and 66 points.
Freeze’s Ole Miss tenure ended in disgrace, however. He not only called an escort service on a university-issued phone, but also was at the center of a recruiting scandal in which players were alleged to have been paid by coaches. Even so, Freeze’s success at Liberty (a combined 17-6 record the last two seasons, including 9-1 mark in 2020) leads many to believe he is one of Auburn’s prime targets, despite his previous scandals at Ole Miss.
Other coaches include current or former Saban disciples: Louisiana coach Billy Napier, Oregon coach Mario Cristobal and Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who led the Tide to a win over Auburn on Nov. 28 with Saban out with COVID-19. Regardless of whom the Tigers choose to replace Malzahn, the new coach will have work to do to salvage Auburn’s 2021 recruiting class which, despite ranking 42nd nationally per 247Sports Composite, is still in the running for several talented blue-chip recruits.
That this decision would come mere days before the start of the Early Signing Period is another question fans and observers can ask about Auburn’s decision.