In hiring Gene Chizik's replacement Auburn's administration was faced with the challenge of moving past a divisive, sometimes disappointing era. They're doing it by hiring a guy who was there for most of it.
You cannot properly gage a coaching hire immediately after it's made. But if you must do so, one good criteria is the reaction of the hirer's biggest rivals. If they instinctively frown, you've made a good hire. When they instead exhibit a wide-eyed disbelief followed by an ear-to-ear grin, you're doing it wrong.
Around lunch today there were rumors flying that Auburn had hired Kirby Smart and that Bama strength and conditioning coordinator Scott Cochran would go with him. Tide fans are sighing in relief that is not the case. With Charlie Strong looking like the leader for the Tennessee job, it now appears that Smart may once again be on the Alabama sidelines next season. Again, the jovial mood of Auburn's biggest rivals should be a bit of a hint for Tiger fans.
As a Georgia fan, I am ecstatic about Auburn's decision to bring Gus Malzahn back to the Most Discretely Financed Little Village On The Plains. I'm sure I have company among Alabama fans. The reason is pretty simple. We've beaten him like a drum before, and collectively we'll likely beat him like a drum again.
Gus Malzahn's offense was really tough to prepare for when it was unique back in 2009. That's no longer the case. Everybody and his brother is running some sort of hurry up, and Malzahn's attack has a history of diminishing returns. It's a misdirection offense which works great until teams have seen and schemed for it. It also makes the defense it's paired with extremely vulnerable, a fact which Gene Chizik allegedly pointed out to Malzahn. That's not rocket science, so it's probably not that surprising that Chiz Whiz figured it out, too. It is a built-in ceiling for any team running Malzahn's scheme. No defense can pitch shutouts with the amount of time they spend on the field.
In 2010 the Auburn offense, led by Cam Newton, scored 49 points against Georgia and 28 against Alabama, winning both games.
In 2011 they scored 7 points against Georgia and 14 against Alabama, losing both. Malzahn's record with Newton against Auburn's biggest rivals was 2-0, without him, 0-4. If I were Malzahn I would have left after 2011 too. My SB Nation colleague Jason Kirk is right, Auburn's first objective has to be beating Alabama. The problem is that nothing in Gus Malzahn's history leads me to believe he can do that now when he needed significant financial assistance to do it in 2010.
What's more interesting to me is what this hire than what it means for the rest of the SEC is what it says about the Auburn brain trust. They have a program with a besotted reputation, which is once again under the specter of NCAA investigation. A program whose players have had parts in armed robberies and fights culminating in tragic shootouts. They're addressing this by hiring a guy who was there for all of it and was lucky enough to leave just before the whole thing collapsed, taking reputed problem child Michael Dyer with him.
Auburn bills itself as a "family." I guess when you run a family business it doesn't make sense to have a nepotism policy. But this hire is further proof of what I call The Wade Phillips Phenomenon. It's the basis of all NFL hiring decisions, but it seeps into the collegiate ranks as well, and can be stated thusly: people will hire the incompetent they're familiar with 34 times before considering the unknown. Auburn fans over at College and Magnolia seem divided on the hire, which isn't a promising start. It's pretty rare for a coach to be more popular than on the day he's hired. Malzahn however already had detractors among the Auburn fan base, some of whom thought Chizik needed to go but nevertheless link Malzahn with the diminishing returns of 2010.
The last time he was in the market Jay Jacobs responded by hiring a recent former Auburn coordinator with little head coaching experience. Having seen that one implode, he's decided to fix things by hiring a recent former Auburn coordinator with limited head coaching experience. It's an elegantly simple system really, one which Jacobs will have further time to refine 24 months from now when he's polishing up his resume.
If there's one upside to this hire, it's that Malzahn has a great reputation as a recruiter luring in, among others, former Auburn starter Kiehl Frazier, rumored to be a malcontent under Chizik. So this hire may have some interesting implications for the Auburn QB picture. And there's a good chance Malzahn keeps at least some of Chizik's assistant coaches, including chief towel-waver Trooper Taylor. That should help hold together what's left of the Auburn recruiting class. It won't do anything to change the culture of Auburn football. And that's great news for the rest of us. Thanks, Jay. You've made many SEC fans very happy. I'll be back later with some thoughts on Arkansas's hiring of Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema. Until later . . .