College football coaching tenures are like presidencies in that they’re usually better evaluated after they end, with the benefit of perspective.
Years from now, I wonder if Gus Malzahn’s Auburn tenure will be remembered this way: He was the coach the last time the Tigers were truly relevant in the SEC.
The narrative to support Auburn firing Malzahn in December 2020, at the cost of a $21.45 million buyout, went like this: Malzahn led Auburn to success early in his tenure, but his program was trending down and often failed to live up to preseason expectations. His once-innovative offense had also grown stale.
Given the rate at which Bryan Harsin, Malzahn’s successor, is failing, that narrative might soon modify to this: More often than not, Malzahn succeeded in one of the nation’s most challenging jobs.
Never mind that Bruce Pearl’s basketball team is ranked No. 1 nationally. Football still commands top billing at Auburn. Even Pearl knows it. He recently declared Auburn “a football school” that’s enjoying success throughout various athletic programs.
But Auburn’s days being a football factor in the SEC are numbered.
Harsin is struggling to keep his head above water just 13½ months into his tenure.
After Oklahoma and Texas join the SEC, which will happen by 2025, coaching Auburn will rank no better than the eighth-best job in the conference.
Harsin inherited the most talented roster of any of the SEC’s four first-year coaches. Nonetheless, Auburn finished 6-7 in Harsin’s debut for its first losing season since 2012.
Malzahn never had a losing record in eight seasons. He also never had a losing streak longer than two games. Auburn will take a five-game losing streak into this season.
Harsin’s woes don’t end with his record.
Offensive coordinator Austin Davis resigned Monday, ending his employment after 43 days. Davis cited “personal reasons” for his exit and a desire to spend more time with family.
Harsin must hire a coordinator for the third time since November. That’s not a sign of a healthy program.
Harsin fired offensive coordinator Mike Bobo after the regular season, one year into Bobo’s three-year contract. Respected defensive coordinator Derek Mason exited Harsin’s staff in January to accept the same position at Oklahoma State.
Those still enjoying a rosy outlook on Harsin’s tenure might say Davis’ resignation is no sweat, or addition by subtraction. If Davis didn’t want the job, then hit the bricks, right?
But perhaps Harsin should have foreseen this when he hired a 32-year-old with no experience either in college coaching or as a coordinator at any level. Davis had spent three years as an NFL assistant. The NFL is a different type of grind that doesn’t require coaches to spend countless hours on the recruiting trail.
Davis’ disembarking follows 19 Auburn players who entered the transfer portal since the end of the regular season. The Tigers have added just five transfers.
WANT MORE OPINIONS FROM BLAKE TOPPMEYER?: Subscribe to the SEC Unfiltered newsletter for an exclusive column every Friday
Meanwhile, Auburn’s 2022 recruiting class ranks 16th nationally in the 247Sports Composite entering Wednesday’s national signing day. That sounds OK until you consider Auburn’s class ranks seventh in the SEC, behind Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee.
Harsin’s 2021 recruiting class ranked 19th nationally. Before that class, the Tigers had not finished lower than 11th in the national recruiting rankings since 2009.
Auburn is one of the nation’s toughest jobs when you balance the demanding expectations with the program’s reality.
This is a good program. It is not a historically great one.
Auburn lives in the shadow of a rival program with 18 claimed national championships, six of which have come during Nick Saban’s tenure. Malzahn did better than most against Saban, with three victories in eight tries against Alabama.
Auburn annually faces a brutal schedule. No other program must play Alabama, Georgia and LSU every season. And although Auburn is located within fertile recruiting territory, it is sandwiched between Alabama and Georgia, which have established themselves as the SEC’s powers thanks to unrelenting recruiting triumphs.
Bottom line: Steering Auburn to enough success to meet the expectations of a demanding fanbase is no picnic.
Auburn on Saturday announced a new, richer contract for Pearl. The Tigers are set join Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas and South Carolina as SEC schools that pay their men’s basketball coach more than the football coach.
That reflects Pearl’s accomplishments in lifting Auburn basketball to unprecedented heights.
It’s also a reminder that while programs like Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Texas A&M pay top dollar to employ some of college football’s best coaches, Auburn lags behind.
Auburn fans currently are bananas for basketball. Pearl’s program must continue to provide a salve, because this proud football school is in danger of slipping from football relevance. Auburn might someday long for one of Malzahn’s eight-win seasons.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.