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2 theories for why Gus Malzahn would take a reduced buyout to stay at Auburn

Malzahn’s future at Auburn might depend on him cutting the school’s obligations if he gets fired.

Auburn v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

After Auburn went a disappointing 7-5 in 2018, Gus Malzahn is back in a familiar place: the hot seat. Despite indications Malzahn will return as the Tigers’ head coach, it’s still not certain — or what his contract will look like.

Malzahn’s been under pressure for years, and reports have swirled that Auburn might be about to fire him. The latest says he might be forced to take a reduced buyout to stay.

On Nov. 27, 247Sports’ Brandon Marcello reported Auburn was working to reduce Malzahn’s $32 million buyout as a condition of him staying:

Though no agreement has been finalized and changes remain possible, Gus Malzahn is on the verge of accepting a reduced buyout and other limitations to remain for his seventh season as Auburn’s head football coach, sources told AuburnUndercover.

Malzahn’s buyout, sources said, would be reduced by an unspecified amount. Any coaching staff moves would have to be revenue neutral, effectively removing the possibility of paying buyouts for assistant coaches and assuring Chip Lindsey would remain as offensive coordinator unless he chooses to leave.

This report came out after former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops denied a report he’d met with Auburn reps about Malzahn’s job.

Per his contract, Malzahn has a huge buyout. At a lot of schools, that would make him impossible to fire.

After Malzahn got to the SEC Championship in 2017, the school gave him a seven-year, $49 million contract with a Malzahn-friendly buyout. If Auburn fires him, his contract says the school owes him 75 percent of the total money left.

You’d think that would automatically insulate Malzahn, but it doesn’t. He could’ve been fired if he’d lost to Ole Miss in mid-October, a source told us then.

So, why would Malzahn accept a reduced buyout, forking over money that the school already agreed to pay him?

  1. Malzahn thinks Auburn could succeed in invalidating his contract. We’ve known for a while that some Auburn boosters have felt confident they could fire Malzahn and not pay the entirety of that buyout. Just last year, Jim McElwain and Florida negotiated a heavily reduced buyout. McElwain’s firing came under unusual circumstances, but it wasn’t clear that he had to accept less money. McElwain and Malzahn share an agent, Jimmy Sexton.
  2. Malzahn cares more about staying in that job than he does collecting the biggest pile of money possible. Money’s crucial, but it’s not everything to every coach. If Malzahn thinks Auburn’s the best place to win, he might be willing to sign away his rights to a big chunk of change. The reporter on the buyout story:

Pressure has ratcheted up as his 2018 team has underachieved after a top-10 preseason ranking.

Malzahn’s first year, 2013, was great. The Prayer at Jordan-Hare and the Kick Six happened. Auburn came within seconds of winning the national championship.

Malzahn’s next three years were bad. Auburn lost five or six games in all of them. Its only postseason win was the 2015 Birmingham Bowl against Memphis.

Malzahn’s fifth year was great for a while. After two early losses, a five-game win streak culminated in embarrassing Alabama to win the West. But Auburn lost to Georgia in the SEC title game and UCF in the Peach Bowl.

And now Malzahn’s sixth year’s been ugly. The No. 9 Tigers beat No. 6 Washington in a Week 1 that looked huge at the time, but is now a cautionary tale about hyping Week 1 games. The running game, the thing Malzahn’s most known for being good at, has declined badly.

It now looks like the Kick Six raised expectations to a point Malzahn couldn’t meet. Auburn has only even gotten close to replicating 2013 once.

Typically, a coach who’s had five years like Malzahn’s at a school like Auburn would not get to stay around a lot longer. His successor, Gene Chizik, got fired two years after winning a national title, albeit on the heels of a 3-9 season. Malzahn’s extended plateauing has been a different kind of thing.

In early November, Auburn’s AD said Malzahn would return in 2019.

Allen Greene told reporters back when Auburn was 6-3:

“He’ll be the coach next year, and I’m confident that he’s going to — he’s already proven that we can get through adversity,” Greene said. “Every team has it, and I’m looking forward to working with him for a long time.”

There’s no reason to think Greene was lying. But things can change quickly, and athletic director votes of confidence don’t historically mean a whole lot. All of these recent reports came after this comment by Greene.

For years, Malzahn’s gone back and forth between being a marked man and the toast of the town.

That’s sometimes happened within the same season, like when Auburn blew a huge lead to lose to LSU and drop to 5-2 (“Fire Gus!” many yelled) but then had that winning streak (“Extend Gus!” Auburn’s admins apparently thought). Before that 2017 Bama game, Malzahn was seriously considering going to Arkansas if the Tigers lost. Some Bama fans were legitimately worried that a win might get Malzahn chased off:

“Most Alabama fans at this point hope that Auburn keeps Gus for a really long time, I think,” Roll Bama Roll’s Josh Chatham told us before that game.

We’ll update this post as Malzahn’s status clarifies.

That might take a while to happen. Who knows.