I’ve defended prisons and denounced politicians. I’ve talked of death and being lost in this Jumanji of a year. I’ve celebrated the lives of two grandparents, a cousin and a feline fellow that was the embodiment of Fat Thor.
Now, sitting here staring down the barrel of turning 40, I want to put the past 11 months in the rearview, or at least begin the process. There’s been a lot to unpack in this Frankenstein of a year, and we don’t really know if it is going to end. For all we know, the clock could strike midnight Dec. 31 and it would roll over to a thirteenth month.
I’m not going to dwell, though.
Instead I’m going to use this space to start conversations that are important and do not evolve around elections, fraud, lockdowns or political agendas. This is the opportunity to go back to my roots and have an important conversation, one that needs to be had right now: Should Auburn fire Gus Malzahn?
Let’s all be realistic about the current situation: The Gus Bus is riding on burning tires and after the Iron Bowl defeat — it’s not a loss, they were whipped — that fire has now spread to the undercarriage.
Looking at the stats, the game sounds competitive. Auburn held on to the ball longer than their cross-state rivals and was comparable in rushing and passing yardage.
The difference, though, lies in the actual product on the field. Alabama looked like a team that could challenge and defeat the Atlanta Falcons or the quarterback-less Denver Broncos while Auburn looked like it would be a tough out for several top-tier Class 7A high school teams.
So what happened?
The answer is simple: coaching. Even with the offensive coordinator running the Tide’s offense like a drunkle (that’s drunk uncle for the uninitiated) calling plays on XBox, it was leaps and bounds above what Auburn was able to do.
But that’s been the complaint for going on two seasons now, as Tigers fans have completely soured on what Malzahn and his staff has been able to do. He brought on Chad Morris (Clemson’s former offensive guru and snakebit Boss Hogg at Arkansas) to call the plays and he’s spent more time arguing with his primadonna quarterback than building the offense.
I heard one of the announcers (either Brad or Gary, CBS’s go-to play-by-play duo) say something along the lines of Bo Nix’s numbers from Year 1 to Year 2 show little improvement. That speaks again to coaching and the inability to develop a quarterback that isn’t built in the mold Cam Newton.
This seems to have a doom and gloom tone, but Auburn will go to a bowl game. They aren’t completely terrible like Vandy and South Carolina (coaches fired midseason) or Tennessee (welcome to Year 25 of rebuilding) or the aforementioned Razorbacks (having flashes of success under their 13th choice as head coach).
This is more than a disgruntled Auburn fan gnashing teeth. I have data courtesy of my favorite website: Saturday’s Down South.
This comes from a 2019 article: “It’s not that Malzahn hasn’t given Auburn reason to pause in its evaluation of the program. Since that inaugural, magical first team in 2013 came within a few plays of winning it all, Malzahn’s teams have underachieved for half a decade.”
They are (after the 2019 season): 11-17 vs. Ranked Teams; 4-12 vs. rivals Alabama, Georgia and LSU; 21-19 in SEC games and 26-24 vs. Power 5 Teams.
On top of that, you’re starting to lose the recruiting battle as a handful of self-proclaimed Auburn men are starting to rethink their commitment and looking to take their talents elsewhere. Since college football has created the early signing period, those decisions are going to vital in the coming years.
Think about the way Auburn ended the 2019 season — a loss to Minnesota in a secondary bowl. It’s getting to the point where you can’t spell the Outback Bowl without the AU.
But, like politics, being bad at your job is not a good enough reason to convince people to fire you. It’s going to cost Auburn (as of Dec. 1) a balmy $21.4 million to hook a wrecker up to the smoldering wreckage of the Gus Bus and moved it from the Loveliest Village to the SEC Network Studios where I’m sure he will become an Auburn University funded analyst like Tommy Tuberville and Gene Chizik before.
Paraphrasing FanBuzz: “Malzahn is one of the highest-paid coaches in the country … and will make $6.9 million this season.”
This isn’t high school where factors outside of the gridiron can be weighed when deciding to keep a coach. This is college football played at the highest level in the most visible and competitive conference; this is a business. Asking Gus to take his sweater vest and services elsewhere should be a business decision. His buyout isn’t the most expensive in the country. His buyout is the last remnants of a terrible administration that has since been replaced.
The loss to Alabama (his eighth, by the way) and the listlessness of his players throughout the season shows that there are issues underlying what the fans see on Saturdays.
However the story doesn’t end there. I was always taught, as a columnist, if you are going to highlight a problem and dedicate ink to it, then you have to offer a solution.
That raises the question: what happens then? If the Malzahns decided to forgo their permanent reservation at the Auburn Waffle House and set up shop somewhere outside the Plains, who is the replacement?
When Malzahn was hired leading into the 2013 season, he was part of a list of candidates that included Kirby Smart (now at Georgia), Gary Patterson (Texas Christian) and Jimbo Fisher (Texas A&M). Those fellas have done pretty well for themselves in the seven years since. What would the 2020 list look like?
According to sites like The Spun, Saturdays Down South and Bleacher Report, some of the (hypothetical) candidates include: Hugh Freeze (currently making Liberty University football relevant with a former Auburn Man running the quarterback position) and Bill Clark (worked his way up from powerhouse Prattville High to UAB).
Personally, I’d like to see Auburn reach out to Mario Cristobal (Oregon), Luke Fickell (Cincinnati), Steve Sarkesian (Alabama Offensive Coordinator) or Matt Patricia (former Detroit Lions coach). I wanted for years to see Mike Leech bring the pirate ship to the SEC and now … given the state of Mississippi State … that was a questionable decision.
The key is that something has got to happen. A move has to be made — either the university is going to stick with Malzahn and raise his ranking from No. 23 to Top 5 on collegehotseat.com (yes that’s a thing) or direct him to the pay window and bring another new coach into the Loveliest Village to try and create a program competes for championships, national, also plural, on a regular basis and not one that settles for mediocre bowl appearances.
To quote the late, great Owen Hart: Enough is enough and it’s time for a change.
It’s that simple.
Griffin Pritchard is a Tallassee resident and regular columnist for Tallapoosa Publishers Inc.