Misery Index, Week 6: Auburn’s poor start puts Gus Malzahn’s $49M deal under microscope

Though people have tried to quantify it in a variety of ways, there’s no great answer for how much a football coach is actually worth to a school. One answer, of course, is to simply open up the salary database that was published by USA TODAY Sports this week, which now shows 13 coaches making at least $5 million per year and 39 making at least $3.5 million per year. 

Sure, there are a few examples at the top where a coach’s true value to the school exceeds the number on a contract, and we’re not just talking about Nick Saban, Urban Meyer or Dabo Swinney. TCU, for instance, wouldn’t be in the Big 12 without Gary Patterson, and it seems unlikely anyone would have accomplished at Oklahoma State what Mike Gundy has over the last decade. 

For everyone else, the numbers on the contract are just a reflection of what the people running colleges and universities are made to believe the market is, a process heavily influenced by a small number of skilled agents who have helped set that market themselves by getting their clients bigger and more fortified contracts and using them as a baseline for what their next batch of clients should get because, well, that’s the market. 

And good for them. It’s hard to begrudge anyone for taking advantage of the people who are in position to make these decisions. People, specifically, like Steven Leath. 

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Leath is the president at Auburn, but for most fans of the football program he is better known as the guy who gave Gus Malzahn a seven-year, $49 million contract — the vast majority of it guaranteed — to prevent his coach from going to Arkansas for a comparable silly money type offer. 

From the moment that deal was signed, however, it was easy to guess what was coming. While Malzahn is a good college football coach, he’s not been a consistently great one nor has he demonstrated a unique ability to lift Auburn above its historical norm. And while Malzahn has beaten Nick Saban twice — which is absolutely worth something — what happened last November was clearly more of a hot streak than a trajectory. 

By giving Malzahn that contract, however, Leath concluded not just that Malzahn was doing good work at Auburn but that he was doing irreplaceable work — a notion that was doomed right away and won’t be remedied anytime soon. 

While it’s possible there will be better days at some point in this long slog of a seven-year deal, the roller coaster is heading downward again after Auburn’s 23-9 loss to Mississippi State, dropping the Tigers to 4-2 and basically out of contention for the national and SEC titles in a year they started in the top 10. The offense — Malzahn’s baby — is 64th nationally in rushing offense, 99th in passing and 93rd in red zone conversions. In other words, it’s a mess. 

Unless the Tigers catch fire again or find another running back like Kerryon Johnson who can mask deficiencies with the offensive line, Auburn is probably headed for seven wins. In any other year, that might put Malzahn on the hot seat. This time, it just means Auburn is No. 1 in the Misery Index, a weekly measurement of knee-jerk reactions based on what each fan base just watched. 


Louisville: In less than 24 months, the Cardinals have fallen from on the fringe of the playoff race in mid-November to competing with Wake Forest and North Carolina for the worst team in the ACC. The overwhelming nature of Friday’s 66-31 loss to Georgia Tech calls everything into question about Bobby Petrino’s short and long-term future. Petrino is turning the narrative toward the team’s youth and how much needed to be rebuilt in the post-Lamar Jackson era. But when you don’t even take full advantage of having a transcendent quarterback — Louisville went 17-9 the last two years — you lose the benefit of the doubt. 

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