Crank Up the Gus Bus … Can I Have Your Tickets?

Lyn Scarbrough

November 15, 2017 at 1:13 pm.

Nov 11, 2017; Auburn, AL, USA; Auburn Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn celebrates after a touchdown against the Georgia Bulldogs during the third quarter at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Photo Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 11, 2017; Auburn, AL, USA; Auburn Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn celebrates after a touchdown against the Georgia Bulldogs during the third quarter at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Photo Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

They started coming in before I could get back to my car from the press box … texts, e-mails, even a voice mail message on my cell.

It had only been a few minutes since Auburn, playing without running back Kerryon Johnson, in the first career road game for quarterback Jarrett Stidham as a Tiger, led 6-0 before losing to undefeated defending national champion Clemson by eight points.

Here’s one of my favorites:

“Fire Gus! Fire Gus now! The rest of the country is laughing at him; they’re laughing at Auburn. And, it’s not going to get any better.”

And, this one:

“Get rid of Malzhan; get rid of (offensive coordinator Chip) Lindsey; get rid of everybody! It’s our only chance! It’s not going to get any better, folks.”

I decided to file away those messages in case the season developed so that they might be useful later.

Of course, Lindsey’s Auburn tenure was only two games old then and the Tigers had played in the Sugar Bowl nine months earlier. But, that didn’t make any difference. The 11 sacks of Stidham that night, plus giving up another early lead, apparently outweighed anything else.

Between Clemson and LSU, Auburn had pounded Missouri (51-14), Mississippi State (49-10) and Ole Miss (44-23), but after blowing a 20-point lead in Baton Rouge, none of that mattered either.

The message machines heated up after the second half collapse … actually even before the second half ended, when it became evident that the visiting Tigers were not going to re-gain the lost momentum and were going to lose the game.

From that group, here is my favorite, from a supposedly longtime Auburn fan … let’s call him Bob:

“That’s it. I’ve had it! Inexcusable! I’m not going to another game until those guys are gone. They’ll never win another big game. Don’t support this mess!”

Bob was right. That was the most brain-dead coaching performance, especially in terms of play-calling, in Malzahn’s Auburn career. But, the coaching staff learned a lesson. Since then, the Tiger team that played in the second half in Baton Rouge has been as missing as Amelia Earhart’s plane. Look as you might, no evidence of that team has been seen.

The games since then have been at Arkansas (52-20), at Texas A&M (42-27) and Saturday afternoon against the nation’s No. 1 team, Georgia (40-17).

Sorry that Bob missed those three, especially the one against the ‘Dawgs. He would have really enjoyed that one. It was a pretty big game.

The criticisms of Malzahn’s head coaching on the Plains are well known. It really started in the second half while the Tigers were playing for another national championship in 2013. After leading Florida State early, Auburn lost, giving up the game-winning scoring pass with just 13 seconds remaining.

That set the narrative. Auburn gets the lead, blows it and loses. In 2014, after losing two weeks earlier to Georgia, there was the Alabama game in Tuscaloosa. The Tigers led at halftime, 26-20, gained 630 yards … and lost. A few weeks later, they led Wisconsin at halftime in the Outback Bowl … and lost.

It happened several more times during the next two years, seasons when Auburn ran its combined record against Georgia and Alabama to 0-6. And, then the icing on the cake … Clemson and LSU.

“… get rid of everybody!”

The “Fire Gus” movement was already on life support before the game in College Station. It was killed at Kyle Field, and its deep, deep burial was celebrated at Jordan-Hare on Saturday. It never made much sense anyway.

Blowing second half leads and calling bad plays and losing three in a row to Georgia and Alabama have been a bad part of the plot, but how about the rest of the story?

Malzahn took over the Auburn program after the 2012 season. In the five seasons since then, including the 40-17 trouncing of Georgia, only two teams have a better conference record than Auburn. Alabama has lost just three SEC games in that time. Georgia has lost nine, Auburn 12.

Overall winning percentages 2013-2017 … Alabama has won 89.4 percent of its games, LSU is at 70.0 percent, Georgia at 67.6 percent, Auburn at 66.0 percent.

In each of the five years, Malzahn’s teams have been ranked in the Top 10 at some point during the season. Four times they’ve ended up in the Top 25. They have played in a bowl game every season, three times on New Year’s Day (this year will be the fourth).

Malzahn was one of three new SEC head coaches at the start of the 2013 campaign.

Butch Jones, just fired in Knoxville, had a 14-24 conference record and was 0-6 this season at Tennessee. Bret Bielema, likely to be fired in Fayetteville soon, has an 11-27 conference record and is 1-5 this season at Arkansas. Malzahn, in no danger of being fired, has a 20-12 conference record, is 6-1 this season and with a win in two weeks may be playing for the national championship again.

Of the 14 head coaches in the SEC, Nick Saban at Alabama is No. 1 on the list. But if Malzahn and the Auburn program isn’t No. 2, please tell me who is.

So, Malzahn isn’t going anywhere … unless he wants to. Ironically, don’t be shocked if those “Fire Gus” folks that wanted Malzahn gone get their wish anyway.

Several sources, knowledgeable about reported contacts and with a pretty good track record for being right, indicate that if (when) Bielema is released in Fayetteville, Arkansas will offer a package to Malzahn that would be hard for him to turn down.

So, why would anybody leave Auburn for Arkansas right now? The Tigers have won the last two matchups by a combined 108-23.

Auburn has the tradition, the facilities, the fan base, the crowd support. The Tigers are again competing for the SEC and national championships.

Next year could be another special season on the Plains. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham is only a sophomore; running backs Kerryon Johnson and Kam Pettway are juniors. Almost all of the deep, fast, talented wide receiver corps return. The defensive front and linebackers, possibly the SEC’s best, return almost intact. And, recruiting is off to a good start.

So, ask again … why would anybody leave Auburn for Arkansas right now?

For a chance to go back home.

Malzahn’s family and his wife’s family both are from Fort Smith, less than an hour drive from Fayetteville. He is a high school coaching legend there, was head coach at Arkansas State before returning to Auburn, and still has contacts with prep coaches throughout Arkansas and in east Texas that would give a recruiting advantage. Razorback fans have not forgotten the high-scoring, entertaining, winning offenses when Malzahn previously coached there.

The pressure would be different. At Auburn, fans still expect to compete for championships and be nationally ranked every season. Malzahn has fueled that expectation with his successes, but even if he succeeds, he is still compared to the elephant in the room (or in the other side of the state, pardon the pun).

At Arkansas, fans won’t be expecting championship competition for a while. Malzahn would have a honeymoon period to correct the destruction that five years of the Bielema era has caused.

And don’t underestimate a call from Mama (home state or alma mater). When that call comes, coaches listen. There’s precedent for that happening, nowhere more than in the SEC.

Some examples:

Paul Bryant – Texas A&M had lost only five games in the past three seasons and had the 1957 Heisman Trophy winner. Alabama had won only four games in the past three seasons and had lost to Auburn in 1957, 40-0. Bryant came back to Tuscaloosa.

Johnny Majors – Pittsburgh had won the national championship in 1976 and had been ranked for four consecutive seasons. Tennessee had lost 10 games the past two seasons and had not had a winning SEC record in five years. Majors came back to Knoxville.

Steve Spurrier – Duke had won the elusive Atlantic Coast Conference championship in 1989 and had two consecutive winning seasons. Florida had lost 16 games the past three seasons and its head coach had been fired. Spurrier came back to Gainesville.

It won’t be shocking if Malzahn would seriously consider a Razorback offer. But, if he does head west, it won’t be because of anything those “Fire Gus” folks had to say.

In the meantime, there’s another pretty big game to play in Jordan-Hare in a couple of weeks.

Speaking of that …

Bob, if you’re reading this, hope you’ll get in touch with me again. Since you won’t be going to the Iron Bowl, can I have your tickets?