It’s October 14, 2017, and LSU just came back from a 20-point deficit to beat Auburn 27-23 in Baton Rouge. Imagine you’re an Auburn booster. A big, rich one. Congratulations on all your success.
Thanks to a 13-0 second half highlighted by an LSU punt return for a touchdown and the complete disappearance of Auburn’s scoring offense, and following an ugly Week 2 loss to Clemson, your team is now 6-2. The inner circle of boosters are furious at fifth-year head coach Gus Malzahn, the architect of Cam Newton’s Heisman and national title winning 2010 season, once considered college football’s preeminent offensive innovator.
Auburn hasn’t won more than eight games since Malzahn’s first season as head coach. That’s also the last time the Tigers beat rivals Alabama and Georgia. None of the on-field stars of either The Miracle On The Plains or The Kick Six, remarkable as they were, are here.
Bama has claimed another national title in that span, their third since Auburn won the BCS in 2010. This is without argument the Nick Saban Era, an epoch of college football defined not so much by the accomplishments of Alabama, but by the madness they inspire in their peers. Nowhere is this insanity felt as acutely as on the Plains.
Against Clemson, quarterback Jarrett Stidham was sacked 11 times. Against LSU, the Tigers were outschemed at halftime by Ed Orgeron, who after the game specifically identified one of Malzahn’s favorite schematic wrinkles, the wildcat, as the formation his staff identified and adjusted against.
So with that all in mind, slip on a pair of Weejuns and become an imaginary Auburn booster. Or, just listen to this actual Auburn booster taking us back to that October of ‘17. Think of this as War Damn Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. You can pick who gets to be who.
“For the third straight year the gripe around the program is that we’re wasting a bad offense on a really good defense. And that’s not what we signed up for with Gus. It was the exact opposite. Top SEC teams can recruit great defenses. That’s an expectation.”
For the first time in his tenure, more people around the Auburn football program want to fire Gus Malzahn than keep him. When, exactly, he loses trust of that inner circle is still up for debate among those in the know.
“I can tell you when it happened.”
“It’s the promises he makes in early 2015. Look at the 8-5 2014 season. That’s the moment. Because he says he’s going to fix it after that finish, and then he hires [Will] Muschamp. The next year, 2015, they’re 7-6 and the total support is gone from the hardcore guys. That’s when it starts.”
And just to make things interesting: Firing Malzahn, after the 2017 LSU game or following the 2017 season, will cost you $6.9 million. That’s no small sum, but by the time this story is over, Malzhan’s buyout will have increased to almost five times that amount, and he will still be the head coach at Auburn, without a new conference or national championship to show for it. In fact, at present, the perception of his job status hovers roughly in the same place as it did in October 2017.
Nothing has really changed, yet a whole lot of things happened that, taken out of context, would convince you otherwise. Anyway, back to our timeline.
“I believe the how and the why on this deal wouldn’t be any different at any other school that cares as much about football as Auburn.”
If you say so. Let’s test that theory.
Cue the montage scene! Except instead of ragtag athletes honing their craft into chiseled efficiency, it’s just a bunch of kids trying to avoid eye contact with Will Muschamp.
The 2014 Auburn team’s flat response to the BCS run of 2013 carries over into a bungled 2015, which spills into a lackluster 2016 ending with a Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma. One could argue that the modern playoff bowl structure makes the Sugar less impressive on its own, but at Auburn you can triple that dissatisfaction.
Those three mediocre years (13 conference losses, 0-6 vs. Georgia and Alabama, only three wins vs. Power 5 opponents in November) bring us back to midseason 2017, which is fast becoming an ignominious year for all of Auburn athletics. In August, ESPN exposed a sexual abuse scandal in the softball program, and in just a few weeks’ time, the FBI will show up to investigate assistant basketball coach Chuck Person for his role in a plot to bribe recruits. It’s a comprehensive case against the athletic department; a series of events that runs the spectrum from looking bad in the media to actually destroying the lives of student athletes.
The university is also operating without steady guidance at the top. President Jay Gogue has just retired after a decade in the position, replaced by Iowa State president Steven Leath. At the athletic booster level, Leath is still largely a mystery. All of this pushes longtime athletic director Jay Jacobs to announce his resignation, effective the following June.
Now Auburn has a brand new president and no athletic director, just as that wave of malcontent with the head football coach is cresting. And while all this is happening, their most-hated rival is happily at work redefining the concept of dominance, right down the road.
So, Auburn booster, the time has come to choose your own adventure: Are you firing Gus? Are you keeping him? Wanna spend 7 million bucks?
Entering 2017, Auburn is one of five SEC schools to win a national championship in football since the league expanded in 1992. It’s a consistent power in every metric - athletic budget, revenue, facilities, recruiting and alumni support. There’s an obvious, rational case to be made that what Saban is doing at Alabama is the greatest of outliers, and should be considered as such. But if that reality is a hard pill to swallow at LSU and Florida and Georgia, it’s damn impossible to choke down inside the same state.
And let’s be honest for a second - money can’t buy context or rationale. The entire economy of the SEC was built on emotionally informed purchases, and they’re celebrated for it.
You can fire or keep Gus at this point, but either way you’ll have to jockey with the only other power broker currently on the board - the new school president.
“There’s a vacuum of power and a lot of anger. All of a sudden there’s a behind-the-scenes power play between a circle of people who don’t like Gus and a much smaller circle of people who do, and no one to keep order.”
Very quickly, Auburn boosters notice that Leath is a lot more visible than previous presidents. He likes attention. He especially likes the attention he gets at big events.
“He’s flashy. The school spends tens of millions to renovate the presidential mansion at his request when it could’ve been demolished and rebuilt for a fraction of the price. Spending goes way up at Auburn, but there’s budget cuts in almost every department. And the faculty grows to hate him.”
Hey, that sounds like the character profile of a guy who could get easily swept up in the emotional mania of a wild college football season.
Well. Surely that’s not about to happen.
In the next two games following the LSU comeback loss, Auburn scores 94 points in easy wins over Arkansas and Texas A&M. This does little to change anyone’s opinion on either side of the divide over the football coach. A&M has been a middling program since it joined the league and, to any Auburn fan, Arkansas is distinctly a second-class program in the league. These are expectations ticked off a checklist, not achievements in a trophy case.
Then comes the Georgia game. Actually, that’s underselling it: Heading into Week 11, Georgia is No. 2 in the nation, undefeated and ascending to a kind of store-brand Alabama under second-year head coach and former Bama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, at a pace that terrifies Auburn faithful. As if life in the Saban Era isn’t already a ceaseless cruelty, now Auburn’s other most hated rival is Xeroxing Nick’s dead-eyed factory process of recruit, develop, murder, repeat.
“And the question is, if it’s not just Saban who’s capable of this, why not Auburn? Why Georgia?”
It can’t ever be simple at this program. If Auburn loses this game to Georgia, Malzahn’s critics will have stark comparative evidence of his ineptitude against both rivals.
Instead, Auburn absolutely beats Georgia’s ass, 40-17.
Everything works: Stidham throws three touchdowns and running back Kerryon Johnson is seemingly everywhere at once. The defense is ruthless. This is Gus Malzahn’s Auburn football, as promised. Accordingly, a quandary emerges:
“Now a lot of people still want him gone, but looking back, you had to think at that point Gus was safe. The thinking was, ‘Well, the house has to get back in order anyway,’ and he just beat Georgia. We beat Georgia. Everything is fine. Not perfect, but stable enough.”
OK, Auburn booster: what now? Can’t really fire Gus after that performance, can you? Things feel like they’re decided, at least for the 2017 season.
But not for long.
“No, not for long.”
Because of Alabama, and what’s about to happen in THE IRON BOWL.
“No. Because of Arkansas.”
“Arkansas. If they don’t fall apart, none of this ends the way it does.”
All right, fine. Just hang on. We’ll get to Arkansas in a second.
For purposes of this story, you don’t need to know much about Raymond Harbert. Here’s his Wiki, it’s pretty straightforward. His name is on Auburn’s business school. He’s important in the state of Alabama and Auburn University by virtue of his wealth, which affords him influence. Every successful college football program has at least one Raymond Harbert. Most have a few, and some have too many (Texas has like 200, and next time they get up a coaching search ask them how that’s worked out so far).
What you need to know here is that Harbert is a member of the Board of Trustees at Auburn, a group that makes every major decision, and that he’s described by local press as “a champion of Malzahn.”
“That’s a good way to put it. Maybe that Raymond is Gus’ guardian angel.”
Raymond Harbert is a Gus Malzahn fan, and he has agency. It’s also important to point out that Gus Malzahn is not your traditional “good old boy” head football coach. He’s not a backslapper. He’s not a laugh riot out on the golf course. Gus wants to coach football and go home so he can coach more football the next day.
In a culture of powerful men falling over themselves to curry favor with ball coaches who are all too happy to play along with them, Gus isn’t the easiest man to love. But Raymond does, and the reasoning for that isn’t important to this story. What is important: Raymond Harbert, millionaire Auburn influencer, will not hesitate to exert his influence to keep Malzahn right where he is.
Oh hey, it’s Iron Bowl Week!
“Our people felt like we were going to win that Bama game. Remember that they almost blew it at Mississippi State the week before. We were 7- or 10-point dogs, but we all felt better than we did going into Kick Six year, honestly.”
And wouldn’t you know it, Auburn wins the Iron Bowl, rushing Stidham for 51 yards and a fourth quarter touchdown. It’s just enough to evoke the ghost of Cam Newton, and Auburn wins 26-14. It’s only Malzhan’s second win against the Tide as head coach, the Tigers’ third win in a decade, the fourth since Saban came to Tuscaloosa. What seemed virtually impossible after three years of double-digit losses suddenly just happens. It’s 2013 all over again, kind of.
Oh, Auburn also just won the SEC West. So they’re headed to Atlanta for a rematch with a Georgia team they smoked just two weeks before, with a chance at a playoff berth on the line.
Can’t fire Gus now!
“No. At that point it’s dead. All of a sudden the bigger group that wants to run Gus off has their nuts cut off. That’s the power of the Iron Bowl. And maybe, who knows, maybe at that point we’re getting ready for another national title. Maybe we’re out of that valley and Gus has found his magic again.”
As an Auburn booster, the paradigm has just inverted: Now you’re trying to figure out how much money to spend on a new contract. All it took was two wins - Georgia and Bama - and Malzahn has regained not only his clout around his own program, but also his leverage as a sought-after commodity on the hiring market.
Those three years of mediocrity? That gap between you and Bama that felt impossible to stop from widening, let alone close? Never happened. Hell, you just beat ‘em!
Now Malzahn’s super-agent Jimmy Sexton just needs leverage of his own to drive the market price, and that’s where Arkansas enters the picture. The Razorbacks are Malzahn’s former team as both a player and assistant, and they’ve just ended the Bret Bielema era.
Back in 2012, Malzahn was thought to be a candidate for both Arkansas and Auburn. He opted for The Plains, and the Hogs tried to rebound from Bobby Petrino with Bielema’s Big Ten smashmouth bluster campaign that netted them a tepid 29-34 record.
“One thing people don’t know is that it was never just ‘Can we fire Gus?’ We knew Arkansas would happen, that wasn’t hard to predict. Before the Iron Bowl and even after Georgia, the concern was ‘Can we negotiate with Jimmy Sexton to get Gus to Arkansas while we’re simultaneously negotiating with Jimmy for a Jimbo Fisher?’”
Without straying too far from our story: You should know there’s a bit of history here with Malzhan and Arkansas. And by a bit we mean enough plot to fit eight or nine seasons of a telenovela.
Now Auburn is headed to the SEC Championship and Arkansas wants to interview their head coach. Auburn fans, even the ones who wanted Gus out, have to imagine him walking off the field in Atlanta -- or worse, in the playoff -- and calling the Hogs. This is deeply upsetting.
“Raymond goes directly to the new president, because there’s no AD in this equation. He goes to Steven and says ‘We just won the SEC West, we can’t lose our head coach to the University of Arkansas!’”
Let’s say it’s ... plausible ... the insanity of that November on the field intoxicated Leath off of it, and the new president, absent any official guidance from the athletic department, thought he’d be a savior and keep this suddenly red hot coach. With a week to go before the SEC title game, Sexton is working a masterpiece on behalf of his client.
“Raymond tells Leath, we’re gonna sit down and hammer out this contract with Gus. We can do it. We have to get this done now. Right now.”
OK, let’s pause for a second: Gus Malzahn has not fundamentally changed anything about himself, his coaching or his program since he was considered dead and done by the majority of Auburn boosters in October.
But he beat Georgia and Alabama. The absolute power of those two games weighed against the 48 others since Auburn last played in a championship game can’t be overstated.
“The worst part is that we’ve already lived this. This happens to Auburn, over and over. In 2007 Houston Nutt gets fired from Arkansas, and the Tommy Tuberville to Arkansas rumors start.”
You could argue that modern “buyout culture” started when Tommy Tuberville signed a new contract with the Tigers after an undefeated 2004 season that bumped his buyout to a then-staggering $7 million. Tuberville - and Jimmy Sexton - managed that number because of JetGate, a failed coup by Auburn boosters in 2003 to replace Tubs with then-Louisville coach Bobby Petrino, the same man who would eventually implode Arkansas. Got all that?
“JetGate caused a mass of firings at Auburn, and set up a situation in which a young, ignorant AD named Jay Jacobs got hosed by Sexton in 2004. And don’t forget Gene Chizik.”
Wait, him too?
“Jacobs was terrified Chizik would replace Mack Brown at Texas after our national championship in 2010, so he gave him a huge new deal.”
Chizik would go on to be fired by Auburn in 2012 - just two years after winning a national title - in order to hire Malzahn. Auburn owed him $7.5 million.
“We literally lived this before. We keep living this.”
Back to December 2017. The same week Auburn prepares to play for a SEC Championship, the school and Sexton negotiate his new deal.
“Gus doesn’t figure much in the back and forth. He really wants to win the game and get back to the power he didn’t even realize he had after 2013. Gus never knew how to wield power or play the game at all. He could’ve done so much more after the ‘13 season.”
Auburn loses the rematch to Georgia, 28-7. The following week, Malzahn’s new deal is announced: $7 million a year for seven years, with 75 percent of the total contract guaranteed.
Six months later, Georgia announces an extension for Smart: $49 million over seven years, negotiated by Jimmy Sexton.
“Allegedly, magically, our people find out the rough numbers on the new contract for Kirby. Auburn just does that, more or less, and offers it to Gus. And he’s busy getting ready for the title game. He’s just like ‘Yeah, sure.’”
A month after that, Auburn loses the Peach Bowl to Central Florida, ending the 2017 season at 10-4. Three games into the 2018 season, Auburn loses at home to LSU, 22-21, on a field goal as time expires. They lose twice more in October, to Mississippi State and Tennessee teams both fielding first-year head coaches.
By the time Auburn loses to Georgia by 17, fervor over Malzhan’s new $31 million buyout is building. Alabama is humming at the Saban standard and Georgia has easily won their division en route to a conference title game rematch of the 2017 national championship. The Tigers are blown out in the Iron Bowl, and finish 8-5.
All the angst Auburn’s power circle convinced themselves they’d burned off in 2017 has bloomed again, $31 million thicker.
“Entering 2019, that contract means the majority of folks at Auburn have their knives back in their pocket, but they won’t let go of the handle. We’re in a strange, brief period of time where no one likes the contract but people are going to wait this thing out for a while. How long, who knows.”
Let’s play out a pessimistic hypothetical, and say 2018 is the start of another three year swoon. Even if the Tigers fire Malzhan after the 2021 season, they’d owe him a staggering $16 million.
One person Auburn can - and does - fire, in the meantime, is Leath. In June of 2019, per the official spin. the Board of Trustees and Leath “mutually decided to part ways after extensive discussion about the university’s leadership.”
As part of his buyout, Leath will be paid $4.5 million over three years.
“Now do me a favor.”
“Tell me where Malzahn’s buyout ranks in college football.”
Run the numbers: At the time of its creation, at the end of 2017, Malzhan’s 75 percent guarantee of $49 million wasn’t the first, second or third largest buyout in college football. It was the fifth, trailing Nick Saban ($33 million), Dabo Swinney ($35 million), Urban Meyer ($38 million) and Jimbo Fisher ($68 million).
Fisher, the former Florida State coach many Auburn boosters coveted as Malzhan’s replacement, went instead to Texas A&M for a 10-year, $75 million contract, 100 percent guaranteed. His FSU program - the one that beat Malzahn and Auburn in the title game in 2013 - had just finished a 5-6 season.
“Now you tell me why Auburn is so much crazier than everywhere else.”