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Bid farewell to the endless summer of FIRE MALZAHN

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Also: How Jeremy Pruitt can make more money by getting fired

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports. Banner Society Illustration.

I think the important thing here is that we pause and respect the end of a brilliant, complicated era:

Gus Season is over.

No more will we weigh the insane cost of his stupid buyout against the equally mad passel of hillbilly millionaires shackled by permanent bridesmaid status in the Saban era. Now that Gus Malzahn has actually been fired by the Tigers, we’ll have to wait as long as 12 or even 16 months before we can credibly question if the Auburn Family (ALL IN) will burn down a haystack of cash because the Iron Bowl hit the over.

To that end, we have to acknowledge the legitimate candidacy of current defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, a prospect that’s so hard to rationalize it actually hurts me to form these sentences. It is, according to multiple credible sources, entirely possible that Auburn just spent over $20 million to buy out a coach who won them a national title (as OC yea but it ain’t like y’all wanna give Chizik the credit either) in order to HIRE THEIR OWN DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR.

Steele is a former head coach at Baylor (9-36 from 1999-’02) and bounced around as a defensive assistant before replacing Will BOOM Muschamp (himself once a pick to replace Gus!) in 2016. To his credit — and to the fatal detriment of Malzahn’s tenure — Steele’s defense became the identity of Auburn football. He recruits well. He coaches well. He’s well respected in the league and he’s beloved by an influential sect of Tiger boosters.

So uh, yeah ... that has a real chance of happening.

In literally any other situation at literally any other program that financial stretch for that kind of yield would have me picking my jaw up off the floor. But it’s Auburn.

Alongside Steele is Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal, who has long been rumored to be working his way back to the SEC. The former Alabama assistant is considered a relentless maniac of a recruiter and, of all the ex-Saban assistants, possibly the most Saban-esque in his managerial demeanor. And if you make your bones as a psychopath recruiter, it’s kinda hard to keep those bonafides in the Pacific Northwest. Cristobal had 247’s eleventh-ranked class in the nation last year, good for tops in the Pac-12, but only eighth if Oregon was in the SEC. Believe me, he notices shit like that.

That move, if it happens, would be Auburn trying to answer Saban in his assumed twilight with Saban just before his prime. Here the Tigers would be embracing their version of a mostly failed plan — the league’s can’t-beat-em-join-em philosophy of hiring Saban assistants. There’s a lot to like about Cristobal at Auburn, but we’ve seen this countless times before — everyone trying to beat the final boss of the game by recreating the final boss. Aim to summon your own Shang Tsung and you’re probably gonna end up with a Goro. Go Vols.

Oh hey: I just made it through an entire conversation without any legitimate consideration of Hugh Freeze. Just like Auburn.

Oregon

Cristobal’s “association” with the Auburn opening is strong enough that a shortlist for the Ducks is already floating around. Unlike Willie Taggart’s one-and-done, this migration South (kill me) won’t be viewed as quite the betrayal to this recent national title contender. It also opens up the Ducks to finding a coach that’s closer to a long-term fix (with West Coast roots maybe?). It’s inarguable that the left side of the country is falling behind in this sport right now, but one coach’s distressed property is another’s investment opportunity. What Oregon has to stop doing is luring someone looking for a tax write-off.

With that in mind: Boise State’s Bryan Harsin is at the logical end of his time with the Broncos, especially as his frustrations with the Mountain West are becoming public. Cal head coach Justin Wilcox is a Eugene native and a second-generation Oregon football player. His offenses have been straight garbage, but his defenses are very legit. Every West Coast search must, by law, include BYU’s current head coach if the Cougars are currently winning, so: Kalane Sitake. There, I said it. And for good measure I’d throw in both current Oregon coordinators, DC Andy Avalos (a Californian) and OC Joe Moorhead (very, very much from Pittsburgh, but he’s a good coach).

Once upon a time, Oregon rose to national prominence without having to perform a single coaching search from 1997 until 2016. Now they could be staring at their third in five years.

Tennessee

A few weeks back, as discontent grew among Volunteer boosters and fans about the future of head coach Jeremy Pruitt (16-18), rumors flew that Pruitt, himself discontent with the program and his lack of support, told people around the program that he’d just as soon “go back to coaching defense for Nick than put up with this shit.”

I mentioned this to a source, who offered up a financial answer: He absolutely should. In fact, Jeremy Pruitt could make more money next season as a DC somewhere else.

Here’s how. Following an extension that stultified boosters after last season (you know, the one where he lost to Georgia State), Pruitt now stands to make 60 cents on every dollar he’s owed on a contract that runs through FIVE MORE SEASONS. So if Pruitt gets fired, he’ll be paid around $12.48 million. That number is what’s called “hard exposure” by contract nerds. And here’s the most important part: The $12-ish million has no offset. Another job paying Pruitt won’t count against the total, though he has no legal obligation to seek further employment after termination.

Pruitt is owed a $4 million base salary in 2021, then $4.2 for the four seasons through 2025 (holy shit you idiots extended him I will never not pause what I’m doing and marvel at that). In 2021, he’ll also receive a retention bonus of $200,000 and an expenses budget of $36,000.

From that $4 million next season, he’ll receive $2.4 million in cash, paid out in monthly installments, if he’s fired in the next week or so. That means he’d need a job paying about $1.8 million annually starting next season to make him whole (the $4 million base plus retention bonus).

Here’s the funny part, and what makes this scenario different from almost every other coaching story I’m familiar with: Pruitt isn’t Nick Saban. He’s not his predecessor Butch Jones. He, it seems, lacks the megalomaniac fervor of a head coach, and (according to people) really would be happy just going back to being a plain-old “ball coach” defensive coordinator.

And unlike 95 percent of the qualified coaches in the market, Pruitt has held DC jobs at schools — Georgia, Alabama, Florida State — that pay coordinators seven figures.

In other words, he might actually be able to land a DC job that pays him more than $1.8 million. For example: LSU is paying Bo Pelini over $2 million, and paid Dave Aranda $2.5 million. So what happens when Pelini gets fired (lol, hypothetically, lol)? What if Texas A&M’s Mike Elko gets a head coaching job? He was really close at Temple.

The point is Jeremy Freaking Pruitt has this entire industry by the balls and probably hasn’t figured it out. (Because he might be Goro). JEREMY: Tell Tennessee to fire you RIGHT NOW, then go DC somewhere. Just go BE A BALL COACH and A BIG DUMBASS and MAKE EVEN MORE MONEY.

Do this for the rest of us, Jeremy, because it’s as close to an ideal American story as any of us can imagine in this day and age.

Utah State

It’s been a week in Logan. After an aggressive national search (I’ll get to the “national” part of that in a second), the Aggies landed on Arkansas State head coach and former North Carolina OC Blake Anderson to replace ousted head coach Gary Andersen. Don’t screw that up on Twitter; I already did.

First, on Anderson: Please don’t bother yourself trying to determine if this was an upward or lateral move for Anderson, especially if you’re a Red Wolves fan. Utah State will likely pay Anderson above the $1 million mark (he was at $825,000 annually at A State), but according to everyone I’ve spoken with, the facilities in Jonesboro are better and the recruiting challenges going to Utah are significant. There’s a way to argue either side of this.

That’s not the point: Anderson lost his wife Wendy to cancer in 2019. Their family has lived in Jonesboro since 2014 (remarkable considering how fast A State has turned out one-and-done coaches). If you have any experience with grief, you don’t need any additional information. If you don’t, please understand that the daily patterns and scenery of life affect the function of grief.

I can tell you that before USU, Anderson went down the road in talks with Southern Mississippi, where he worked as an assistant under Larry Fedora ten years ago. This move — more than any other I can think of — was informed by a personal, family need first and everything in the football-money-prestige milieu second. Hopefully the Anderson family finds a new chapter in Logan.

Second: Stadium’s Brent McMurphy reported that USU players voted not to play in Saturday’s season finale vs. Colorado State because of comments by university president Noelle Cockett regarding the religious and cultural background of Aggies interim head coach Frank Maile, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

After Tuesday’s Zoom call with Cockett and Athletic Director John Hartwell to discuss Maile’s candidacy for the Utah State job, the team’s leadership council raised issues about Cockett’s comments regarding Maile, who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The players were so “dumbfounded” by Cockett’s comments that a player conducted an anonymous players-only survey asking the players if they were on the zoom call and whether they were concerned about anything they heard in the meeting.

About three-fourths of the team that responded by Thursday mentioned they were concerned about the religious bias against Maile by Cockett. The players said they don’t believe the Zoom call was recorded.

If you’re unfamiliar, the LDS church is headquartered in Salt Lake City. Because the meeting wasn’t recorded, we don’t know exactly what was said, and certainly not what was implied. Taking the statement of the players at face value, this seems improbably, unthinkably stupid for Cockett, as Logan and the surrounding area are overwhelmingly LDS.

It is possible — and I’m going to really, really emphasize that I’m only saying possible here — that Cockett meant to intone that Utah State wasn’t limiting itself to a coach from Utah or of the LDS faith. I say this only because USU was aggressive in pursuing and communicating that the search to replace Andersen was national and exhaustive. Locally, attention was focused on candidates like Maile and Weber State head coach Jay Hill, but Cockett and Hartwell pushed for a coast-to-coast pool. That I can confirm; USU had involvement with Louisiana Tech head coach Skip Holtz and Florida State OC Kenny Dillingham. Hartwell hired Neal Brown to successfully rebuild Troy and is connected nationally.

So it’s possible, maybe, that Cockett was implying USU wanted to expand their brand nationally and not limit themselves. The reality is that couching that aspiration in the context of a particular person’s faith is a fool’s errand with a zero percent success rate. Also, record your damn Zoom meetings and you won’t end up in a public relations war with your own students in public, and an independent investigation into the hiring process.

Arkansas State

The moment Anderson’s name became connected with other jobs, former Tennessee head coach Butch Jones zeroed in on replacing him in Jonesboro.

Since his firing by the Vols in 2017, Jones has been an off-field assistant at Alabama and plotted a return to head coaching. The closest he came was with Colorado State last December, but the Rams backed away at the last second because of Title IX concerns during Jones’ time at Tennessee.

Jones is also bringing former Houston head coach Major Applewhite as OC, as the pair worked together at Alabama. This move can be considered as a major get for both sides. For ASU, Jones will recruit to a program less than an hour from Memphis with a staff that’s going to be long on SEC experience. The immediate plan will be to build back the recruiting that slipped in Anderson’s latter seasons, and when ASU has talent, they’re a threat to win the Sun Belt.

For Jones, A State is exactly what he wants: a chance to be a head coach again, in the Southern footprint, at a school with facilities on par with the best Group of Five schools in the nation (and better than some Power 5 schools, honestly). The Red Wolves have a habit of catapulting coaches to the P5 — Malzahn, Harsin, Freeze — which is ultimately Jones’ goal. He could easily build back the team via the upcoming transfer wave and hand the reigns to Applewhite if the right P5 draws interest.

South Alabama

The tl;dr here is South Alabama’s search was the efficient version of what Southern Miss did. The program is ideally located, close to recruiting hotbeds, and had a young, promising candidate with a tie to the area in mind from the beginning. The difference is that USM scoured the coaching ranks before coming back to Will Hall, while USA knew better than to screw around.

Indiana defensive coordinator Kane Wommack was the Jaguars’ defensive coordinator from 2016-‘17. He knows the program from the inside and the recruiting footprint it’s perched upon (ironically, he was once a fullback at Southern Miss). At 33, Wommack is the first “young” coach in Jags’ history, something a lot of people in the industry thought the program needed. There’s a point in which veteran coaches are necessary to get a program off the ground, and a very specific fulcrum where the need for a hype/culture/energy persona takes over.

Arizona

Kevin Sumlin’s hapless 9-20 run culminated in Friday’s horrific 70-7 loss to rival Arizona State. Arizona officials grew tired of Sumlin (and vice versa) a while back, but a $7.5 million buyout, half of which is due within a month, led many to believe the two sides would suffer through a loveless union until that buyout got old enough to be paid off without much strain.

That’s the real, measurable cost of losing by 63 to the other program in the state: You’re willing to start straining. Arizona football’s implosion has been so total, so inarguable and without any fraction of a potential positive to position over the next nine months that the school damned its own torpedoes and bit down anyway.

So what’s left? The Wildcats are strapped for cash and ASU is rolling under Herm Edwards. The good news is 1. The state of Arizona’s high school talent is getting better and 2. Clay Helton is still the head coach of USC, meaning the Pac-12 South will remain sleepy and Los Angeles recruiting remains unguarded.

The current talk is that Arizona Athletic Director Dave Heeke is looking for a young head coach with an offensive background who can do more with less in the short term, which is AD code for “We are broke-ass, don’t ask.” If you’re looking for someone already doing that, call Kent State’s Sean Lewis. The Flashes are running Lane Kiffin’s offense on Frank Solich’s budget at a previously moribund program.

My next call would be to Nevada’s Jay Norvell. The former Oklahoma and Texas assistant has rallied the Wolfpack, a low tier Mountain West program, to 6-2 during a pandemic. About that “low tier” qualifier: I’ve heard Norvell and his staff have been frustrated by Nevada’s lack of financial commitment as the program has steadily improved. As one Mountain West source put it, “They’re talking like a football school but still acting like a basketball school.”

Notice any symmetry there, Wildcats fans? Norvell has proof of concept on a more-with-less build at a basketball school on the West Coast. Or as one agent said succinctly, “he’s already at the Arizona of the Mountain West.” If not Norvell, maybe Avalos fits here as well.

Or, and hear me out: run the fucking triple.