Preseason top-10 team Auburn fell to 6-4 on the year with a non-threatening, 17-point loss at Georgia on Saturday. Late in the game, ESPN’s cameras caught Gus Malzahn talking — maybe into his headset, maybe to himself, or maybe to both:
I’m no expert lip reader but I’m pretty sure a blind man can see what he just said. pic.twitter.com/hmbo84L4Hu— Auburn Overtime (@AuburnOvertime) November 11, 2018
It sure looked to a lot of people (including me) that Malzahn was saying out loud: “They’re probably gonna fire me,” or something quite close to that.
The most plausible alternative I’ve seen is that Malzahn’s saying they’re probably gonna “fine” him, and that he’d been in an official’s face shortly before that moment.
Auburn probably would fire Malzahn under most circumstances.
Since he won 12 games and came a hair from a national championship in 2013, his first year in charge, Malzahn’s Tigers have failed to hang among the sport’s elite. They’ve lost between four and six games every year after 2013. They’ve only contended for a Playoff berth once, and that year, they lost to Georgia in the SEC Championship Game and then lost to the AAC’s UCF in the Peach Bowl. Malzahn’s reached some pretty high highs at Auburn, but he’s been stuck on the wrong side of the hump for a long time.
The complicating factor is Malzahn’s egregiously large buyout.
It will cost Auburn $32 million and change to fire him this year:
If Auburn had fired Malzahn right after the 2017 regular season, his buyout would’ve been $6.9 million. But the Tigers decided to extend Malzahn’s contract through 2024 and give him a raise from $4.725 million per year to an even $7 million average.
In the event Malzahn is fired without cause now, Auburn owes him 75 percent of the total remaining money on the deal — half of that within 30 days, the other half in installments over the next four years. The math here isn’t that complicated, but Malzahn’s buyout would work out to about $32.1 million if Auburn fired him on Dec. 1, 2018.
This is the SEC, and Auburn’s got plenty of rich supporters. But Malzahn’s buyout is massive even by this sport’s warped standards of coach pay. It’s the fifth-biggest total on USA Today’s nearly nationwide list of buyouts, only behind the four active coaches who have won national titles: Jimbo Fisher, Urban Meyer, Dabo Swinney, and Nick Saban.
Malzahn’s buyout is going to be big for a long time. Even firing him after 2021 would leave the Tigers paying him about $16 million to buy out the last three years of his deal.
That half the buyout has to come with 30 days is an additional difficult factor. Auburn might want some kind of cash infusion to help pay the huge up-front cost.
But the buyout isn’t guaranteed to save Malzahn. Not by a long shot.
Malzahn was close to being fired earlier this year, a source told SB Nation’s Jason Kirk, and might have been coaching for his job the week his team beat Ole Miss:
University president Steven Leath is under fire as well, I’m told by a person who’d know, as Leath helped negotiate with Malzahn’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, for that fat contract. The Auburn AD at the time, Jay Jacobs, was heading into retirement.