Changing coaches might fix one of Auburn football's biggest problems, but not the other

Josh Vitale
Montgomery Advertiser

AUBURN — The news barreled through Auburn like one of those trains you might get stuck behind on East University Drive or North College Street.

Director of Athletics Allen Greene announced Sunday a leadership change for Auburn football as Gus Malzahn will no longer direct the program.

Fans either celebrated or took a walk down memory lane, depending on how they felt about the coach who led Auburn to eight consecutive winning seasons, two SEC West crowns, a conference title and a national championship game appearance. Players thanked him for the way he cared about and led them.

Alex Kozan, a 40-game starter on Auburn’s offensive line from 2013-16, offered a more blunt assessment.

“If you don’t invest in what’s actually needed to make Auburn Football successful, you can hire as many coaches as you want and it won’t matter,” he shared on Twitter. “As things stand, the program is controlled by a small group that doesn’t have a clue what they’re doing.”

Kozan did not elaborate, but what he said makes sense. Committing $21.45 million in buyout money to move on from Malzahn might solve one of Auburn’s biggest problems, but it won’t do anything to fix the other.

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn and athletic director Allen Greene talk before the game at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La., on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019. LSU defeated Auburn 23-20.

Let’s start with what could get fixed, which is the offense. That sounds counterintuitive, given that Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle system is what propelled him from Arkansas high school coach to offensive coordinator for a Cam Newton-led BCS national championship team in the span of just six years.

But it’s also what failed him during the latter part of his tenure as head coach.

Auburn scored 39.5 points per game behind Nick Marshall and Tre Mason during Malzahn’s best season in 2013, then 35.5 in 2014. The number never got that high again: The Tigers averaged 27.5, 31.2, 33.9, 30.9 and 33.2 points per game from 2015-19, respectively, before mustering a Malzahn-era low 25.7 during a 10-game, SEC-only schedule this season.

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That won’t cut it. Offense wins championships. The last four national title winners averaged at least 37.1 points, with last year’s historic LSU team torching defenses for 48.4 per game. The top four teams in this year’s College Football Playoff rankings are scoring at least 37.7.

Malzahn tried to find that every which way. He turned over play-calling duties to Rhett Lashlee in 2016 and Chip Lindsey in 2017-18, took them back in 2019, then gave them away again to longtime friend and former Arkansas coach Chad Morris this season. That was supposed to be the move that elevated Auburn to the ranks of the SEC’s best. Instead, it regressed in a lot of areas.

Maybe cleaning the slate and starting fresh is the answer. Maybe Auburn’s next coach will – or will hire someone to – get quarterback Bo Nix to realize his five-star potential. Maybe interim coach Kevin Steele or Oregon’s Mario Cristobal or Louisiana’s Billy Napier or whoever the program hires will be able to better recruit the four- and five-star offensive linemen the Tigers have been so sorely lacking.

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What that new coach will not be able to fix, though – at least, not without considerable help – is the level of financial investment Auburn is willing to make into the football program.

Fans, maybe first and foremost, want Auburn to compete with rivals Alabama, Georgia and LSU. Those teams have combined to win each of the past six SEC championships. That’s where the Tigers strive to be.

They didn’t get there on the field with Malzahn, going 8-17 against them overall and 0-12 in games played in Tuscaloosa, Athens and Baton Rouge.

But they were even further behind off the field.

Alabama recently spent $16 million to upgrade its already state-of-the-art football facility. Georgia is in the process of building an $80 million complex. LSU unveiled a $28 million renovation to its facilities last summer, just before the start of its title run.

Auburn opened a new locker room and recruiting space at Jordan-Hare Stadium in 2018, but it still houses its football operations in a multi-purpose athletics complex that opened in 1989. Greene said Saturday that plans for an approved football-only facility set to be built on the Old Track are 80% complete and could be ready by January – but they still need board approval before construction can begin.

College football recruiting is an arms race, and Auburn is trailing.

The Auburn Athletics Complex, which opened in 1989.

And speaking of recruiting, those schools invest more in that than Auburn does, too. Georgia led the nation, spending $2.6 million in 2018; Alabama was right behind with $2.3 million; and LSU spent $1.3 million. Those were increases of 351.7%, 131.3% and 122.9% from what those schools spent in 2013, respectively, according to a 2019 USA Today study.

Auburn ranked 16th nationally, spending $1.08 million, which was a 21.8% decrease from 2013. That number dropped to $955,898 in 2019.

That was still good enough to sign recruiting classes ranked 12th, 11th and seventh over the past three cycles. But Alabama and Georgia finished no worse than fifth in any of those seasons, and went 1-2 in both 2019 and 2020.

Malzahn provided a stable floor through it all. He guided the Tigers to eight consecutive winning seasons, which is the program’s longest such streak since Pat Dye’s nine from 1982-90. He won two SEC West titles despite sharing the division with one of college football’s greatest dynasties.

He just didn’t win enough.

A coaching change could provide a spark. It did eight years ago, when Malzahn took over a team that went 3-9 in the final season of Gene Chizik’s tenure and led it to a 12-2 record, SEC title and appearance in the BCS national championship game.

But sustained success on the field requires investment off it. Auburn can’t have the fifth-highest head coaching salary in the SEC, eighth-highest recruiting budget and facilities not anywhere better than that, then get angry when the team finishes fifth in the conference standings.

And you don’t have to look to Auburn’s biggest rivals for proof. Jordan-Hare sat 61,261 fans before opening its west upper deck in 1980, a year before Dye was hired to be head coach. By the time he retired after one of the most successful 12-year stretches in program history, it sat 85,214 with an east upper deck, too. That expansion is what ultimately brought the Iron Bowl to the Plains for the first time.

Auburn needs to help its next head coach in a similar way.

Josh Vitale is the Auburn beat writer for the Montgomery Advertiser. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoshVitale. To reach him by email, click here.