By JOHN ZENOR
Auburn fired football coach Gus Malzahn, ending an eight-year run that began with a trip to the national championship game.
Athletic director Allen Greene announced the firing Sunday, a day after the Tigers finished the regular season with a 24-10 victory over Mississippi State. Auburn is 6-4 in a pandemic-shortened season of all Southeastern Conference opponents, losing by double digits to highly ranked teams Alabama, Georgia and Texas A&M.
The Tigers also were upset by a struggling South Carolina, which wound up firing coach Will Muschamp during the season.
“After evaluating the state of the Auburn football program, we’ve decided that it was time to make a change in leadership,” Greene said in a statement. “We appreciate everything that Gus did for the program over the last eight seasons. We will begin a search immediately for a coach that can help the Auburn program consistently compete at the highest level.””
Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele will be interim coach. Auburn will owe Malzahn a $21.45 million buyout for the remaining four years of a seven-year, $49 million deal.
The school must pay half of that within 30 days.
Malzahn went 68-35 in eight seasons and was 39-27 against SEC opponents. He led the Tigers to an SEC title in 2013, his first season, losing to Florida State in the national championship game.
Auburn said Greene recommended the firing to President Jay Gogue after conducting a “thorough analysis” of the program.
Known for his his up-tempo, no-huddle offenses that have since become more prevalent, Malzahn was offensive coordinator in 2010 when quarterback Cam Newton won the Heisman Trophy and led the Tigers to the national title. He called offensive plays for much of his tenure, but he struggled to develop other passers, including Jarrett Stidham and Jeremy Johnson.
Nick Saban, coach of rival Alabama, said Malzahn was among those “at the forefront of” a move to up-tempo offenses that even the top-ranked Crimson Tide has adopted — with great success.
“I guess playing against those guys, you almost get to the point where you say if you can’t beat them you might as well join them,” Saban said. “I guess that’s why we’ve changed some of the things we do around here.”
Current starter Bo Nix was a prized recruit but has been inconsistent in his two seasons and hasn’t appeared to progress much as a sophomore. Other quarterbacks have transferred, including Malik Willis (Liberty), Joey Gatewood (Kentucky) and Woody Barrett (Kent State).
The Tigers are tied for 86th in scoring this season, averaging 25.7 points per game. They’re 80th in passing at 212.3 yards a game, despite having playmaking receivers like Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz, along with freshman tailback Tank Bigsby and a second-year starter in Nix.
Besides the South Carolina loss, Auburn wilted against No. 10 Georgia (27-6), No. 1 Alabama (42-13) and No. 5 Texas A&M (31-20).
Malzahn started his tenure in impressive fashion, leading the Tigers to a turnaround from 3-9 in Gene Chizik’s final year to 12-2 in 2013. But they lost at least four games in each of his remaining seven seasons, despite making it to the SEC championship game in 2017 after knocking off No. 1 Alabama in the Iron Bowl.
Malzahn was already pointing to next season after the loss to Texas A&M.
“We’re not happy with a six-win season,” he said the next day, Dec. 6. “But under the circumstances of being an inexperienced team, having a couple injuries, not having a nonconference schedule — which, in the past, we’ve been very good in nonconference. But make no mistake, our goal is to win championships.
“I will say this: I’m extremely excited about next year.”