By Cole Frederick/Sports Correspondent
Each preseason, there’s a list of coaches relegated to the dreaded “hot seat” discussion.
Throughout the recent SEC Media Days in Hoo-ver, four coaches from the SEC were frequently mentioned in those hot seat conversations – Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, Kentucky’s Mark Stoops, LSU’s Les Miles and Auburn’s Gus Malzahn.
Sumlin has struggled to maintain the success generated during the Johnny Manziel era. Stoops has yet to deliver a bowl bid to Kentucky despite several promising recruiting classes and a weakened SEC East. Miles experienced a turbulent season a year ago and will feel the pressure to deliver a conference title in 2016.
But what about Gus Malzahn?
Malzahn led Auburn to an SEC title and an appearance in the national title game during his inaugural season, but the last two years have been far more tumultuous. Auburn was predicted to be playoff contender in 2014 and fell apart in the second half. The 2015 Tigers then stumbled to a 7-6 season, and questions immediately arose about Malzahn’s future on The Plains.
Is one mediocre season enough to justify putting Malzahn on the hot seat? Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs certainly doesn’t think so, because in the off-season he awarded Malzahn with a raise and a contract extension through 2020.
The problem with Auburn’s 2015 campaign wasn’t just the 7-6 record, though it certainly didn’t help matters. The biggest issue was what happened with Auburn’s in-state rival. Nick Saban and Ala-bama won yet another national title, which made Auburn’s shortcomings seem even more calamitous.
Fair or not, Alabama will forever be the measuring stick for Auburn football. Dozens of programs across the country would love to have the Tigers’ success since the 2010 sea-son, but those triumphs pale in comparison to what the Crimson Tide has accomplished in that same time frame. Other than Urban Meyer, no coach in the country is comparable to Saban, yet Malzahn’s success (or lack thereof) will continue to be compared to Saban’s for the duration of his tenure at Auburn.
Here’s why the hot seat talk doesn’t make sense. Sure, Auburn has been di-sappointing the last two years, but the program is still only two years removed from an SEC championship. Malzahn consistently lands top-10 recruiting classes and he has yet to deal with any serious off-the-field issues.
Fans clamoring for playoff berths and championship appearances every year should familiarize themselves with Auburn’s history. Auburn is one of the top 15 programs in college football, but it’s not going to produce an annual title contender. AU hasn’t had back-to-back 10-win seasons since 1988-89. It’s a great program that should produce a contender once every 3-4 years, but to expect the same success as Alabama under Nick Saban is asinine.
Perhaps Gus Malzahn isn’t the right coach for Auburn. Maybe the Tigers win only 6-7 games again in 2016 and Jay Jacobs decides to make a change. If Malzahn is fired after only four seasons (as was Gene Chizik after the 2012 season), however, that would be a major red flag for any potential replacements. AU certainly wouldn’t be able to land a premier and established coach like Jimbo Fisher or Gary Patterson. Why would any coach want to come in and battle Saban head-to-head for the foreseeable future? Auburn could hire a promising up-and-coming coach, but how would that be any different from when they hired Gus Malzahn four years ago?
Patience is difficult for coaches, players and fans – especially after watching an in-state rival claim another crown. But Gus Malzahn has proven in the past he can deliver for Auburn and deserves to start 2016 without hearing about the hot seat.