The search for the next head coach of Auburn continues after the Tigers parted ways with Gus Malzahn on Sunday, a move that surprised many and drew criticism for the enormous buyout paid during a pandemic that has hit the pocketbooks of athletic departments, including the Tigers', across the nation.
Auburn fired Malzahn on Sunday after he closed out his eighth and final season on the Plains with a 24-10 win over Mississippi State to bring the Tigers' record to 6-4. Malzahn compiled a 68-35 overall record at Auburn, with a 39-27 mark against SEC opponents.
Malzahn's contract included more than a $21 million buyout, half of which is due in the next 30 days.
Malzahn's firing also came days before the early National Signing Day on Wednesday, threatening to derail a class that was already well below the Tigers' usual standard. As of Wednesday morning, Auburn's class included only 12 commitments and was ranked 45th in the nation. The poor recruiting class is thought to be a contributing factor to the university's decision to cut ties with its eight-year head coach.
"After evaluating the state of the Auburn football program, we’ve decided that it was time to make a change in leadership," said Athletic Director Allen Greene. "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."
The gradual decline in the Tigers' offensive production during his tenure was one of the biggest factors in Malzahn's dismissal. The Tigers boasted the No. 11 total offense in the nation during the Tigers' historic run to the national title game in 2013. The Auburn offense has finished the last three seasons ranked no better than No. 64 nationally.
The Tigers' scoring average has suffered a similar decline over Malzahn's tenure, ranging from 39.5 points per game in 2013 to 25.7 this season.
Malzahn's comments after the Tigers' loss to Texas A&M the first week of December also drew plenty of criticism from the Auburn fanbase. He said a 6-4 record would be a "solid year" under normal circumstances. Auburn lost four or more games in every season under Malzahn after his first in 2013, although the Tigers never posted a losing record during his tenure.
On Tuesday, Auburn announced it had hired Parker Executive Search Firm to assist an eight-person advisory group to select the Tigers' next head coach. The group includes Greene, Auburn Executive Vice President Lt. Gen. Ron Burgess, faculty athletic representative Beverly Marshall, Executive Associate Athletic Director Tim Jackson, NFL CIO Michelle McKenna, former player and current BOT member Quentin Riggins, and former football stars Randy Campbell and Bo Jackson.
Early reports put current defensive coordinator Kevin Steele at the top of possible candidates to take over as Auburn's coach, a possibility that has drawn a range of responses from the Auburn fanbase, mostly ranging from incredulity to exasperation to anger.
Other names of possible candidates being floated out include Oregon coach Mario Cristobal, Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin and Liberty coach Hugh Freeze.
The latter two candidates appear to be longshots at coming to the Plains, while a substantial buyout for Cristobal might make him an unrealistic candidate for a program that is set to shell out millions to Malzahn and possibly even more to assistant coaches if they were to part ways.