Gus is Out; Who’s Next for the Auburn Tigers?
The Gus Bus finally ran out of gas, and for good this time. The only coach in the entire SEC with more than one victory over Nick Saban is jobless.
It's been said a hundred times since he was fired, but the fact remains: Auburn's athletic department and its boosters would not fire Malzahn and pay his $21+ million buyout if the candidate was not already in their sights.
Many names are floating around, some more realistic than others.
The more outlandish suggestions are Urban Myer and John Harbaugh. Let's lay those to rest right here. If and when Harbaugh is fired by Michigan, he's going back to the NFL. The shame of his failures at his alma mater is immeasurable. There will be a lot of head coach openings in the NFL in just a month's time. He'll top many of those lists.
As for Meyer: keep dreaming barners. Believe what you wish, but Meyer's unceremonious bolt from Florida as Nick Saban stole the SEC from his grasp was less than coincidental. Meyer has been rumored for many major jobs, from the Dallas Cowboys to USC, and none have come to fruition. Why? Nick Saban. If your Auburn buddy is foolish enough to believe this one, pat him on the head and ignore him.
In the realm of believable lies Mario Cristobal and Kevin Steele, Auburn's current defensive coordinator.
Cristobal would be a slam dunk for Auburn (which would be a great pun if it were still a basketball school...) Cristobal is a winner, winning National Championships with Miami and Alabama as an assistant, and keeping Oregon in the College Football Playoff hunt every year. Even more so, Cristobal is an excellent recruiter, with his classes finishing top-15 in 247 Sports's ranking since taking over for the Ducks and bringing in names like Kayvon Thibodeaux and Penei Sewell, two future top-5 NFL Draft picks.
Why won't Cristobal leave Oregon for Auburn? Because his Oregon program is the powerhouse of the PAC-12. USC is on the rise, as are Washington and the pesky Colorado Buffs, but no team is on Oregon's level right now. Point to Oregon's two losses to Oregon State and Cal if you must, but just understand his job is not in jeopardy and he stands a real chance of building something special in Eugene.
Success tends to follow Kevin Steele everywhere he goes, even Auburn. If there was one feather in the Tigers cap for the past five years, it's been the dominance of Steele's defense, even when the talent level wasn't elite.
As such, Steele will serve as the interim head coach until Auburn announces the permanent head coach. It's the first time the title head coach has been tied to Steele's name since 2002 when he finished a four-year stint at 9-36 for the Baylor Bears.
Rumors have been fairly heavy that Steele could be the guy. His consistency with the Auburn program would lean in his favor. However, there is very little reason to believe he alone could get the program to a status where the goal is winning National Championships instead of just Iron Bowls. Maybe with an exciting offensive hire to develop Bo Nix he could win favor with a restless fanbase.
Or maybe the Auburn Tigers do what has been expected all along: hire Hugh Freeze. Freeze may not have been under scout's honor when he did so, but he notched a few victories over Saban at Ole Miss, and for many fans, that's enough. There's no doubt that with the success he's sustained at Liberty, Freeze could lure in elite talent to compete with the Alabama juggernaut.
Regardless, Auburn is desperate for someone elite to take the reigns. Malzahn may have been in over his head, but he still saw some success at Auburn. The interest from players and a fiery fanbase is there, it just needs true leadership. Whether it comes in the form of someone expected like Freeze or Steele or truly out of leftfield like Meyer, it's time Auburn make an actual effort at being on the level it expects to be at.
Otherwise, Saban will continue to hold every Tiger in the conference by the tail.