By GLENN GUILBEAU | Tiger Rag Featured Columnist
BATON ROUGE – In 1953, Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley signed Walter Alston to a one-year contract. The Dodgers finished 92-62 for second in the National League, and O’Malley proceeded to sign Alston to 22 more consecutive one-year deals, resulting in seven National League pennants and four World Series championships, including the last three after the team moved to Los Angeles in 1958.
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin entered 2017 with three years left on his contract, but in reality he was down to one year as A&M athletic director Scott Woodward said on the Paul Finebaum Show during the SEC Spring Meetings in Destin, Florida, last June.
“Coach Sumlin knows he has to win,” said Woodward, who used to work under Chancellor Mark Emmert at LSU. “He has to win this year. He has to do better than he has done in the past.”
Sumlin, who was 8-5 from 2014 through 2016, did not. He finished 7-5 Saturday with a 45-21 loss to LSU and was fired the next day.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, like Auburn coaches before him, has instead thrived under the one-year subliminal contract. As only Auburn could do, Malzahn’s job was on the line Saturday despite a No. 6 ranking and 9-2 and 6-1 record on the season. Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs previously announced his retirement under pressure because Malzahn was doing so bad this season. What is in the water at Auburn?
Auburn, which is the O’Malley of football subliminal contracts, actually had Malzahn under a one-game addendum to his one-year contract in the 2016 season going into the LSU game. Malzahn had dipped from a fortunate 12-2 and national championship game appearance in 2013 to 8-5 in ‘14 and 7-6 in ’15 going into the ’16 season. Thanks to some sundial clock management by Les Miles, he survived not by the hair on his chinny chin chin, but by mere seconds for an 18-13 win at Auburn last year. LSU’s D.J. Chark caught the winning touchdown pass from quarterback Danny Etling, but time had expired before the snap. And Les Miles, whose clock luck beat Auburn 30-24 in 2007, was out of luck and time. He was fired the next morning. And Malzahn went on to just skate by at 8-5. But after an offensive display of offense in a 14-6 loss to Clemson in game two this season, Malzahn was in trouble again. Never mind Clemson was the defending national champion and remains in the national title hunt today.
So when Auburn’s offense disappeared at Tiger Stadium in the second half last Oct. 14 in a 27-23 loss, the handwriting was on the wall and in the subliminal fine print of Malzahn’s contract, even though he has three years left on his contract. But that’s only in writing, which doesn’t mean much in the SEC, where Firings Just Mean More. (See last week’s column.)
But Malzahn, who is getting used to this week-to-week, year-to-year deal, turned it on. His team knocked off No. 1 Georgia, 40-17, on Nov. 11 and popped No. 1 Alabama, 26-14, on Saturday. Not only were both No. 1, as he said, both were Auburn rivals, and he beat the hell out of each one. The 12-point win over the Tide makes it look closer than it was. Auburn outgained Alabama, 408 yards to 377, and fumbled near the goal line in the first half and could have scored another touchdown late in the first half, but Alabama got away with pass interference. The win was so dominant it should – if anything is right in the world – keep Alabama out of the Final Four with one loss.
Now, Malzahn is another win over Georgia in the SEC Championship Game Saturday afternoon away from reaching the college football Final Four for the first time in Auburn history. Wonder if he can keep his job? Wonder if Jacobs can delay his one-year deal to the summer of 2019?
Few coaches have gotten so hot while on the hot seat.
O’Malley must look down from Azure Blue Heaven proudly at the Navy Blue of Auburn. Malzahn is not the first under a one-year unwritten contract to thrive at Auburn.
Tommy Tuberville was under fire entering the 2004 season following a so-so, 8-5 campaign in 2003 that was a dip from the 9-4 finish in 2002. In Auburn language, 8-5 must translate to 5-6 or something. Then he promptly went 13-0 and won the SEC. He could have played for the national championship, but USC got Oklahoma instead and won 55-19. Auburn would have been in the Final Four that year had it existed. Tuberville was able to last through four more one-year off the record contract seasons for a 10-year run – the longest for an Auburn coach since Pat Dye went 12 from 1981-92.
Terry Bowden was also put on a one-year wink-wink deal entering the 1997 season. He had started out 11-0 and 9-1-1 after Dye and his probation, but stumbled to twin 8-4 seasons in ’95 and ’96. He was in trouble, and he just passed too much, even though he directed a very nice version of the revolution Steve Spurrier was ruling at Florida. Things have arrived at Auburn late at times over the years – tree decorations other than toilet paper, the forward pass and job security for good football coaches.
And Bowden won big in ’97, finishing 10-3 with the school’s first SEC West title and appearance in the SEC Championship Game. He was done less than a year later, though.
Not all Auburn coaches can handle the one-year edict, though. Gene Chizik, like Tuberville and Bowden before him, started fast and furious with 14-0 run and national championship in the 2010 season in just his second year after Tuberville. Then he fell to 8-5, got the one-year deal for 2012, nosedived to 3-9 and was gone.
It is exhausting to be Auburn’s coach, particularly since Nick Saban took over at Alabama in 2007. At the time, Auburn was on its third coach in Tuberville out of five who would get a decade or more in with Dye and Shug Jordan the other two. But after Saban got to Tuscaloosa, Auburn was on its third coach – Malzahn – after just six seasons, and he has been on thin ice for the last two or more.
Malzahn is enjoying a different spin to the Auburn one-year contract than Tuberville and Bowden before him, though. He has another suitor. A native of Fort Smith, Arkansas, and a high school coaching icon there who also was Arkansas State’s head coach in 2012 and a popular Arkansas offensive coordinator in 2006, Malzahn is wanted by Arkansas the way Johnson City, Tennessee, native Steve Spurrier was by Tennessee.
Malzahn – before the monumental wins over Georgia and Alabama – was in the unique position of being on the hot seat at Auburn while a hot name at Arkansas.
After his team beat Louisiana-Monroe, 42-14, on Nov. 18 in between the twin No. 1 games, Malzahn was asked about the coaching carousel in the “Just Move More”
SEC – aka Two Athletic Directors and a Truck – and if he just ignores that.
“Yeah, yeah,” Malzahn said, knowing full well the question was about the Arkansas job, which was not quite open yet – officially. “You ignore it because one week (LSU week), you’re getting fired. And the next (Georgia week), you’re going to take another job. And I’m worried about the dern SEC West championship. So, yes, to answer your question.”
And now he’s won that dern SEC West with two more big ones on his docket.
Could you imagine the revenge position Malzahn and, for that matter, Jacobs – the man who hired him – would be in if Auburn wins it all?
Malzahn could step up to the post national championship game podium in Atlanta on Jan. 8 and say to the Auburn mafia, “Take this national championship trophy, this job, this contract and that hot seat … AND SHOVE IT! I AIN’T COACHING HERE NO MORE! … WOOO … PIG … SOOIE!”
GUILBEAU POLL: 1. AUBURN (10-2, 7-1). 2. GEORGIA (11-1, 7-1). 3. ALABAMA (11-1, 7-1). 4. MISSISSIPPI STATE (8-4, 4-4). 5. LSU (9-3, 6-2). 6. SOUTH CAROLINA (8-4, 5-3). 7. TEXAS A&M (7-5, 4-4). 8. OLE MISS (6-6, 3-5). 9. MISSOURI (6-5, 3-4). 10. FLORIDA (4-7, 3-5). 11. KENTUCKY (7-5, 4-4). 12. VANDERBILT (5-7, 1-7). 13. ARKANSAS (4-8, 1-7). 14. TENNESSEE (4-8, 0-8).
SEC SATURDAY SCHEDULE: Auburn vs. Georgia, SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, 3 p.m., CBS.
QUOTE OF THE MONTH: “LSU played Alabama closer than expected in a 24-10 loss. And Mississippi State came much closer to beating Alabama than most thought it could in a 31-24 loss. Come, Nov. 25, Auburn will finish the job.”
… Column in Tiger Rag Magazine, Nov. 14, 2017, Volume 39, Issue 24.