ADOB: My View of The Truth, Part VII
Hello again, friends.
A coach texted me Wednesday afternoon with an unusual question.
You know anything new?
No, The Malzahn Saga isn't going well at all. The last time we spoke, Gus Malzahn had made provisional agreements to concede some autonomy, and perhaps one year of buyout protection, in exchange for a reprieve of sorts. It's the reprieve only a desperate man would consider — one final season to make good on his promises of another Western Division title even as supporters-turned-conspirators rack their brains searching for a way to rid themselves of him.
It's bizarre. It's the definition of dysfunction. And it's 100 percent Auburn Being Auburn.
Wednesday came and went with no substantive changes to the impasse, which only can be interpreted as a small victory for Malzahn. Why? He still has a job at Auburn. He's out on the recruiting trail, believe it or not, affirming his belief that he'll be the Tigers' head coach next season just like athletic director Allen Greene said three weeks ago.
Yet these Auburn assistants, by and large, have no idea what's happening. They know the situation is messy and complicated and may force a change in employment, but they haven't heard from Malzahn. Maybe he can't inform them for legal reasons. Maybe his motivation is more about strategy than legality. This is, after all, a coach who on Sunday called Auburn president Steven Leath's bluff and now has Auburn's athletic administrators wondering what happens next.
They don't appear to know.
This wasn't supposed to happen. Leath was expected to confront Malzahn with a list of impossible-to-accept limitations that would make a return for 2019 simply untenable. The goal was to coax Malzahn into a voluntary negotiation to extricate himself from this mess. Or perhaps to avoid the massive train wreck everyone could see coming.
Yet Leath misunderstood Malzahn's raison de vivre. Surely the coach who seized upon a small window of opportunity last fall to snag a contract worth $49 million would be all about the money, right? Wrong. Malzahn isn't about the money at all. He didn't grow up with money and never developed a taste for expensive things. His financial outlook is binary: Enough or not enough.
Malzahn already has earned more than $25 million as Auburn's head coach. He has enough money.
No, Malzahn wants this job. He wants it because he believes the Tigers are going to be better in 2019. He's so sure of it. In fact, he's enraged by the very idea of some other coach being given a chance to compete with this Auburn roster at his disposal next fall. Malzahn wants another crack so badly that he'll even agree to cede some measure of power to get it.
That's a twist Leath never anticipated.
There is precedent for this kind of presidential miscalculation. William Walker resigned in January 2004 after playing an important role in Jetgate — his tacit approval legitimized the clandestine operation — and thereby landed the university on probation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Walker was on the job for just 19 months.
Leath's behavior hasn't reached that level of betrayal, but he nonetheless has become exceedingly unpopular in several corners of the Auburn world. Most observers blame him solely for Malzahn's massive buyout clause since he personally was involved with Malzahn's contract renegotiation and personally approved it. Advisers cautioned that dipping his toes into athletic affairs in such an obvious manner could have devastating consequences on his ability to govern, but Leath paid the warnings no mind.
Former athletic director Jay Jacobs, who'd already announced plans to step down last winter, told reporters that he had no meaningful role in the contract's negotiation or approval. Current athletic director Allen Greene wasn't hired for another two months.
Malzahn's prohibitive contract is a Leath problem. He knows that. And to that end, he tried on Sunday to coax Malzahn to the bargaining table. The coach instead accepted Leath's parameters, which transformed a spectacle into true absurdity. The plan was a failure.
Compounding Leath's problem is the fact that some trustees weren't at all aware of Leath's plan to smoke out Malzahn on Sunday. Those who didn't know ahead of time found the whole charade alarmingly unsophisticated. Those who were aware remain awe-struck by Leath's inability to actually affect Malzahn.
Nobody, it seems, is good or satisfied with Leath's management of this situation. That's led some to wonder if Leath may present a more pressing problem than Malzahn from an overall perspective. It's common for folks to rage at or about an embattled football coach. It's rare to see several disparate sectors of a university system rage at an embattled president. That rarely ends well for the president.
Barring some unforeseen spectacle somehow eclipsing the madness of the past three days, Leath will be forced to live with a football program that has become a dystopian quagmire due to his own choices. And we all know one unmistakable truth: Auburn and its people care deeply about their football program.
As long as Malzahn is willing to actually move forward under these circumstances, and his barnstorming tour through the living rooms of Auburn's top recruits this week suggests that he's quite willing, he's seized the upper hand in this complicated quarrel.
Isn't that something? He's still the head coach.