If Texas calls, Gus Malzahn should jump at chance to leave Auburn
AUBURN, Ala. -- Toilet paper still draped the trees in Toomer's Corner on Tuesday morning. The nation still marveled in awe at Auburn's dramatic 34-28 Iron Bowl victory over Alabama, when -- maybe you've heard -- cornerback Chris Davis returned a missed field goal 109 yards for a touchdown on the game's final play.
It's been that kind of season for Auburn, as the Tigers have reeled off one dramatic victory after another -- Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Georgia and finally Alabama. It's also been a dramatic change from the state of affairs a year ago. In his first season as head coach, Gus Malzahn has taken a team that went 0-8 in the SEC in 2012 and led it to the league title game.
But as great as things are for Malzahn on the Plains right now, here's a piece of advice for the Tigers coach: Get out of Auburn as fast as you can.
There's an expectation that the Texas job will open in the next few weeks. According to a source, Malzahn has told friends privately that coaching the Longhorns is his dream job. If confronted with the choice between Auburn and Austin, it's a no-brainer move for Malzahn to bolt. The best job in the Big 12 is a much more stable place than The Plains, as even a play-caller of Malzahn's acumen isn't likely to make adjustments to historical trends.
History tells us that Auburn coaches -- no matter how successful -- don't have long and stable professional careers. Just ask Terry Bowden, who started 11-0 in 1993. Or Tommy Tuberville, who went 13-0 in 2004 after a failed coup to hire Bobby Petrino. Or Gene Chizik, who got fired two seasons after going 14-0 and winning the national title.
Eventually, serendipity meets reality. The pendulum of good fortune swings the other way. Charmed runs meet market corrections. There's a lot about the way this season unfolded that has been a unicorn. And unicorns don't often travel in packs.
Meddling boosters have been a huge problem at Auburn in the past, and the Tigers coach is seemingly always a 7-5 campaign away from a millionaire batting his eyelashes at the next hot name. That booster may just charter a plane to go talk to him.
In the 14-team SEC, Auburn will never be better than the fifth-best job, as Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU are widely considered a notch above the Tigers' position. So if Malzahn gets a chance to go to the Longhorns, he should jump at the opportunity. That's in part because of the boundless potential in Texas, where recruiting talent is flush and national championship expectations are realistic. (Think the Texas high school coaches wouldn't all love Malzahn?)
Look at the careers of Bowden, Tuberville and Chizik, all of whom atrophied since leaving The Plains. There have been too many prying boosters, too many NCAA investigations and too much off-field tumult the past two decades to think that it can all be cleared away with a few improbable victories.
That's what's been the most striking part of Auburn's 2013 season -- the near absence of off-field issues. From the time Auburn won the national title in '10 until the firing of Chizik last November, nine Tigers players were arrested. While that total isn't jarring relative to the rest of the SEC, four of those arrests were for armed robbery in March '11. That incident, along with the murder of two former players near campus in June '12, cast a pall over the program.
An analysis by AL.com in January 2012 showed that 43 percent of Auburn's 2009 and '10 signees left the program. The school had enough concerns about its players' off-field behavior that it paid an outside company nearly $75,000 to monitor its players to uphold an 11 p.m. curfew last season.
Since Malzahn has taken over, all has essentially been quiet off the field. He has thrown three players off the team, including the leading returning tackler from 2012, Demetruce McNeal, who was arrested in August for marijuana possession. But that's been the closest thing to controversy, a far cry from the 13-month NCAA investigation into allegations relating to Cam Newton and four other Auburn football players.
SEC commissioner Mike Slive credited Auburn for the recent spell of stability. "I've been impressed with [athletic director] Jay Jacobs and [president] Dr. Jay Gogue and how they have made two decisions on the football side that have served them well," Slive said. "They deserve a whole lot of credit here. Needless to say, so does Gus. It's certainly a historic turnaround."
Slive added about the lack of trouble: "It shows you there's real stability at the highest levels here."
Betting on that lasting would be betting against history. Perhaps this is the start of a long and prosperous run of success on the field and a lack of issues off it. But history has shown that impatience and power struggles are the norm. Bobby Lowder, the infamous mega-booster, has decreased power since his fortune shrunk late last decade. But there's still enough pockets of booster power that some agents steered their clients away from pursuing the Auburn job last year. (Chizik's time at Auburn, even with the national title, still seems to haunt him. His name rarely comes up in job searches.)
Malzahn deserves all the credit for cleaning things up off the field and reviving the Tigers' fortunes on it. His offense is imaginative, his recruitment of Nick Marshall showcases his eye for talent and his leadership has been exquisite in transforming the team's culture. In less than a year, he's changed the image and fortunes of the program more significantly than even the most optimistic Auburn fan could have envisioned.
Who could have guessed this summer that Malzahn may be more likely to go to Texas than Nick Saban? Meanwhile, Alabama is having a season that includes an uncharacteristic number of off-field issues.
University of Texas' regents have made it clear that Saban is their top target, but there's little optimism in Austin that he'll jump. While Alabama's presumed absence from the national title game increases the slim possibility of Saban leaving -- it eliminates the awkward timing element if he's playing for a BCS championship -- it's hard to envision that happening. (Ironically, both Malzahn and Saban have the same agent, Jimmy Sexton.)
And that's arguably the biggest reason Malzahn should jump. One 109-yard field goal return doesn't supplant Alabama as the premier program in the state, country and SEC West. Chasing Saban isn't a wise way to spend one's prime coaching years.
So if Texas calls Malzahn, he would be foolish not to listen. Considering the combination of Texas' potential and Auburn's history, it could be Malzahn's savviest escape yet.