Auburn had 21.4 million reasons not to fire Gus Malzahn with four years remaining on his seven-year, $49 million contract extension. Unfortunately for Malzahn, he gave the program one “solid” reason to pull the plug and start anew.
Malzahn was fired Sunday after a “thorough analysis” of his tenure, athletics director Allen Greene and school president Jay Gogue announced. Firing Malzahn after eight seasons comes at the end of an unusual and frustrating season that saw the Tigers finish 6-4 following Saturday’s regular-season finale against Mississippi State. That record included three blowout losses to ranked teams — Alabama, Georgia and Texas A&M — plus an inexplicable loss to South Carolina, which fired head coach Will Muschamp before the season ended.
Malzahn’s seven-year contract, which he agreed to and signed in December 2017 after leading Auburn to an SEC West title, included 75 percent of the deal’s value fully guaranteed. His buyout, as of this month, is $21,450,000, with 50 percent of that owed within 30 days of his termination and the remainder paid in four equal annual installments. Malzahn will be paid the remainder of his contract, the university announced in its release.
“After evaluating the state of the Auburn football program, we’ve decided that it was time to make a change in leadership,” Greene said. “We appreciate everything that Gus did for the program over the last eight seasons. We will begin a search immediately for a coach that can help the Auburn program consistently compete at the highest level.”
In wake of Malzahn’s departure, defensive coordinator Kevin Steele will serve as Auburn’s interim head coach as the university begins its national search for Malzahn’s successor.
Auburn started this peculiar season — played against the backdrop of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic —on the cusp of a top-10 ranking, but the Tigers tumbled out of the rankings within a month of their first game. After a 27-6 road loss at Georgia, Auburn narrowly beat Arkansas at home the following week — benefitting from a controversial replay review in the game’s waning moments — before losing at South Carolina a week later. That loss against a two-win Gamecocks team wound up being one of the most baffling of Malzahn’s tenure.
Auburn then rattled off three straight wins and appeared to find its stride before running into the Alabama buzzsaw. The Tigers lost to the Tide, 42-13, at Bryant-Denny Stadium after Thanksgiving. It was the program’s fifth straight loss in Tuscaloosa, and it marked the second-most lopsided loss of Malzahn’s career, just behind Auburn’s 31-point loss to Alabama in 2018.
The loss in Tuscaloosa also dropped Auburn’s record under Malzahn against its three biggest rivals — Alabama, Georgia and LSU — to 8-17, including 0-12 on the road. A week later, a 31-20 loss to Texas A&M ensured the program’s seventh straight season with at least four losses. Auburn led Texas A&M heading into the fourth quarter, but the offense faltered late, and the defense suffered a total letdown against the Aggies.
After the game, Malzahn was asked about recalibrating the team’s goals after another loss, to which he said the aim was to finish the year 6-4 now—the best the Tigers could do at that point — adding that “if you had a normal nonconference schedule, it’d be a solid year.” That statement didn’t sit well with Auburn fans already frustrated by the product on the field, and Malzahn issued a clarification a day later.
“I just wanted to make sure that it’s very clear: Our expectation is to win championships here at Auburn,” Malzahn said. “It’s been that way since I’ve been here. We’re not happy with a six-win season.”
Neither were the decision-makers at Auburn, as an ugly 24-10 win against Mississippi State wasn’t enough to save Malzahn’s job.
Malzahn finishes his Auburn tenure with a 67-33 overall record, a national coach of the year award, two SEC West titles, one SEC championship, a national runner-up finish and two New Year’s Six bowl berths. He had only a 2-5 record in bowl games, with wins against Memphis in the 2015 Birmingham Bowl and Purdue in the 2018 Music City Bowl. Malzahn leaves Auburn as fifth all-time in wins among head coaches, behind Ralph “Shug” Jordan (176), Pat Dye (99), Mike Donahue (99) and Tommy Tuberville (85).
He was one of only two active SEC head coaches with a win against Nick Saban, and leaves Auburn with a 3-5 record against its in-state rival. For all Malzahn achieved during his eight seasons, his teams could never return to the pinnacle the Tigers reached during his first season at the helm.
After taking over a program that went 3-9 in 2012, Malzahn orchestrated one of the biggest single-season turnarounds in NCAA history, guiding Auburn to a 13-2 record overall that included the Prayer at Jordan-Hare and the Kick Six wins. Auburn followed that with an SEC title game win against Missouri and a berth in the BCS National Championship Game, where the team fell 13 seconds shy of taking home the program’s first national championship since 2010 and just the sixth in school history.
In the seven seasons since that apex, Auburn had just one other division title while experiencing four campaigns with four-loss regular-season records. Ultimately, the return on investment wasn’t “solid” enough for Auburn, and now Malzahn is out as the program begins the search for its 28th head coach.
“Coach Malzahn led the Auburn football program with honor and integrity,” Gogue said. “We appreciate his service to Auburn Athletics, Auburn University and, in particular, our student-athletes. We wish him and Kristi all the best.”
Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.