ATLANTA — Gus Malzahn is a man of few words under the best of circumstances, but here in the bowels of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, he needed only 13. Malzahn’s team had just lost the SEC championship game to Georgia 28-7, and he knew what was coming.
So delivered through gritted teeth and backed by a steely-eyed glare, Malzahn stuck to the script that was both perfectly clear and fantastically firm when asked if he planned to be at Auburn next season.
“I want to be the head coach at Auburn,” he said
You will be?
“I want to be.”
Translation: Show me the money. Or, maybe more to the point, show me the loyalty.
Some time in the next 24 hours, Arkansas is going to dump a pile of cash on Malzahn’s doorstep so big that he would be insane not to at least think about coming back to the state where he made his name as an innovative high school coach.
At that point, the ball will be in Auburn’s court. And after five years, the Auburn administration — such as it is in its current state of chaos — will have to decide whether it’s going all-in on the Gus Bus or whether he’s not worth the significant contract demands that are sure to be on the table.
After five years in this roller coaster relationship that has seen him bring Auburn to the brink of a national championship — an achievement that only earned him about two years of goodwill before the hot seat talk started — here’s some advice for Malzahn.
Go home to Arkansas, take the money and enjoy the warm embrace of a state that is desperate to become relevant again in the SEC.
Go home and fulfill the destiny that should have been yours when you brought the “Springdale 5” to Arkansas in 2006 and became the offensive coordinator under Houston Nutt, a marriage that fell apart and deserves a far better conclusion.
Go home and get away from the nuttiness of the Iron Bowl rivalry, where history says you’re going to be on the short end of the stick more often than not as long as Nick Saban is in the same state.
Go home and get off the crazy train that is Auburn football, a program that simply isn’t made for anything more than a seven- or eight-year run in this Finebaum-fueled world of media pressure and fan entitlement.
Go home and have the security of knowing that you’ll no longer be a two-game losing streak away from the masses screaming for your job.
“Very few teams could do what this team did,” said Malzahn, referring to Auburn’s five-game winning streak that won the SEC West after blowing a 20-point lead at LSU on Oct. 14. “We had to circle the wagons. We had to rally.”
All the more reason to go.
Next time his job’s on the line, he might not be so lucky.
The history of Auburn is clear. Tommy Tuberville dominated the state for the better part of a decade, but two years of a downward trend led him to an abrupt end. Gene Chizik was done two years after winning a national title.
Even in the disappointment of Saturday’s performance, in which Georgia completely flipped the script from their meeting three weeks ago, Malzahn spoke glowingly of the Tigers’ future. Next year, Auburn will have a lot to replace on the offensive line but should be potent at the skill positions and on defense, where they have recruited well for several years.
“I’m happy here at Auburn,” he said. “We’ve got great players. I love my players. We’ve got a good foundation built, and the best is yet to come.”
But this is also an SEC where the margins are thin, and the balance of power outside of Alabama is ever changing. Jimbo Fisher’s addition at Texas A&M won’t make it any easier.
Those who have a window into Malzahn’s thinking insist that his obsession isn’t hitting some number on the lifetime monetary scoreboard that will allow him to retire by the end of his next contract. His obsession is winning a national championship, and there’s no doubt that’s easier to do at Auburn than Arkansas, a program that has had a few highs since joining the SEC in the early 1990s but couldn’t touch Alabama even at the height of Bobby Petrino’s run in 2010 and 2011.
This decision, though, will go deeper than comparing the attributes of the two programs, where Auburn wins in a landslide.
By this point in his career, Malzahn should have earned security and a level of trust that he didn’t have with outgoing Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs, who was ousted this fall after a bevy of non-football scandals landed on his lap.
Jacobs being out of the picture, preferably along with his patron saint Pat Dye, could make it easier for Malzahn. There would be less day-to-day drama, more harmony behind the scenes. For a while, anyway.
Still, though, it comes down to the contract. If Auburn gives Malzahn what he wants, this is it. He’ll own Auburn football for the foreseeable future, with no rival to usurp or undermine his power. Booster groaning won’t matter, even if he loses the next two Iron Bowls.
That’s a big bet on Malzahn sustaining this season’s turnaround after going 23-16 the previous three years. But it’s one Auburn needs to decide if it wants to let someone else make.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re back in this moment next year,” Malzahn said as he ended his news conference Saturday night.
But after five years at Auburn, everyone knows the score. In no uncertain terms, Malzahn told Auburn what it needs to do. With Arkansas coming and a decision to make, we’ll find out soon whether Auburn got the message.