On Dec. 3, 2017, one day after losing to Georgia in the SEC Championship, Auburn signed Gus Malzahn to a seven-year, $49-million contract extension. Three years later, Malzahn was fired.
“After evaluating the state of the Auburn football program, we’ve decided that it was time to make a change in leadership," athletics director Allen Greene said in a statement on Sunday. "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.”
The dismissal came one day after Auburn closed their regular-season, Malzahn’s eighth as head coach, with a win over Mississippi State to finish 6-4. It was his 68th overall win in 103 games and bumped his SEC record to 39-26. Malzahn led the Tigers to 12 wins and the BCS National Championship Game in his first season, 2012, but won at least 10 games one more time and won zero conference championships over his final seven seasons.
The 2017 seven-year extension included a massive buyout as Auburn retained Malzahn amidst Arkansas’ interest to replace Bret Bielema. If the deal is honored, he is due to receive 75 percent of the remaining contract, which is approximately $22 million. Had Auburn waited one more year, the buyout would’ve dropped to $16 million (and $10.9 million after 2022 and $5.5 million after 2023).
With Gus Malzahn out, who might Auburn target?
This is the first football hire for Greene, who arrived from Buffalo two years ago. A former minor-league baseball player, Greene was deputy AD at Buffalo when the Bulls hired Lance Leipold from Division-III Wisconsin-Whitewater and promoted to AD during Leipold’s first year. He has never made a football hire in his 12 years as an athletics administrator.
Hugh Freeze will be atop most prospective lists. Immediately mentioned by several college football insiders after the Malzahn firing, Freeze was Ole Miss head coach during Green’s final year in the Ole Miss athletics department (2012). He preceded Malzahn as Arkansas State head coach, won big at Ole Miss, and guided Liberty to nine wins in his second season. NCAA and, to an unknown extent, personal issues led to Freeze’s downfall in Oxford, where he went 34-18 in his first four seasons before a 5-win 2016.
Mentioned as a potential candidate at South Carolina and other future openings, Freeze comes with plenty of baggage but has recruited every corner of the south, knows the SEC, and could be a favorite of deep-pocketed donors looking to win now.
Two coaches who’ve expressed interest in leaving their current Power Five jobs: Mike Gundy and Scott Satterfield. Gundy has flirted with Tennessee and other vacancies during his 16 seasons at Oklahoma State, where he’s delivered unprecedented stability to a once-middling program. He’s been widely criticized for off-the-field comments and in-game blunders in recent years but, on one front, it’s doubtful decision-makers in red-state Alabama care about Gundy’s OANN debacle over the summer. Satterfield, meanwhile, interviewed for the South Carolina job at the end of a disappointing three-win season, his second as Louisville head coach after eight wins in year one and 40 wins over his final four years at Appalachian State. For what it’s worth, neither Gundy nor Satterfield have never coached anywhere in or near Alabama.
Several Group of Five coaches could be on Auburn’s short list, including Billy Napier, Luke Fickell, and Bryan Harsin. Napier passed on multiple offers last year and interviewed at South Carolina two weeks ago before returning, for now, to Louisiana. The 41-year-old former assistant to Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban is reportedly awaiting one of college football’s best jobs. Fickell, meanwhile, rejected Michigan State’s offer last year and has Cincinnati in position for a New Year’s Six bowl in his fourth season. At $3.4 million per year, he’s a well-paid Group of Five coach but Auburn can dwarf that number if there’s mutual interest.
Clemson assistants Brent Venables and Tony Elliott are expected to lead any potential coordinator lists for Greene. Swinney lost co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott to South Florida last year but has retained Venables and Elliott for a combined 20 seasons. Both have rejected interview and job offers in recent years and are two of the highest-paid assistants in the country.
Other names to watch: Neal Brown, Tom Allen, Mario Cristobal, Steve Sarkisian, and Geoff Collins. Brown has spent eight years of his career in the state, including four years as Troy head coach (2015-18). Realistically, he's likely one or two good years at West Virginia away from generating high-level interest but he knows the area well and might come cheaper than an A-list candidate. Collins is a second-year coach leading a methodical rebuild at Georgia Tech. He knows the south and southeast well, is making a shade over $3 million, and could jump if he views this is a rare opportunity.
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Andrew Doughty is a writer for BetMGM and host of High Motor, a college football podcast available on Apple Podcasts and everywhere else. He has written for Sports Illustrated, HERO Sports, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter: @adoughty88