I have to preface this by saying I don’t think even Nick Saban is this devious, but, damn, do I wish this was evidence of some serious eleventh-dimensional chess being played.
Talk to people behind the scenes on the Plains, and Auburn 26, Alabama 14 changed everything for Gus Malzahn and the Tigers. Without that victory, insiders say, it’s all but certain Malzahn wouldn’t have that new seven-year, $49-million guaranteed contract.
It’s quite possible he would be the new coach at Arkansas instead.
Go back to the next-to-last week of November. Thanksgiving week. Iron Bowl week. There was a curious vibe at Auburn.
It didn’t matter that the Tigers had beaten Georgia for the first time in four years, dominating the No. 1 Bulldogs as they hadn’t in decades in a 40-17 statement. Or that, despite having two losses on their resume, they had set up an Iron Bowl that would decide the SEC West title and maybe more.
Malzahn was concerned about the Alabama game for a different reason, people close to him say. He was convinced a fourth straight loss to the Crimson Tide would cost him his job. He may not have been wrong.
… Malzahn himself was fully aware of the possibility that the Iron Bowl could be an all-or-nothing proposition. His most insistent demand in the negotiations was that the entire amount of the contract be guaranteed to make it financially prohibitive to fire him in the future.
As concerned as he was, Malzahn had leverage in the Arkansas opening. While the Razorbacks weren’t offering the same kind of money Malzahn eventually got from Auburn, insiders said, that job was Malzahn’s if he wanted it.
Then came Auburn 26, Alabama 14.
Given what they perceived as the choice between losing a coach who’d beaten Georgia and Alabama to a lesser rival in the SEC West or making Malzahn one of the highest-paid coaches in college football, Auburn’s leaders put their faith in Malzahn. They put together a massive new deal that was essentially in place before the loss to Georgia in the SEC Championship Game.
Or, as Malzahn skeptics in the Auburn family put it, Auburn got played by Arkansas and Malzahn’s agent Jimmy Sexton, and Auburn caved.
Those skeptics fear that Auburn has given Malzahn too much power based on too little production, that it will be financially disastrous and thus impossible to fire him if he goes 8-5, 7-6 and 8-5 the next three years, that he’ll have no real boss going forward because there will be a new athletics director learning the territory soon.
If you think there’s a downside to Gus being at Auburn for the long haul, then the way things have turned out is a win-win-win for Malzahn, Saban and Sexton. And all it cost was a loss that didn’t affect Alabama’s chances of making the CFP.
It couldn’t have turned out any better if the three of them had planned it.