“Some are born weird, some achieve it, and others have weirdness thrust upon them.” – Dick Francis, “To The Hilt”
For two schools that have so consistently been in the upper half, even the upper third or fourth or fifth of the SEC football pecking order, what has happened over the past month in regards to the stability of those two programs is like watching someone drop an Abrams tank from the back of a cargo plane: There isn’t a parachute big enough to keep it from hitting the ground and making a crater when it does.
Alabama started all this by having the temerity to win a national championship. That’s the kind of sin that can’t go unpunished in places like Auburn and Knoxville, so changes were made. Of course, the Tigers and the Volunteers weren’t the only programs to have a small panic attack over the development; LSU nearly showed Ed Orgeron the door despite winning a title only one year previous. Other teams shuffled assistant coaches, especially after the early signing period produced yet another class inbound to Tuscaloosa that looks primed to continue Nick Saban’s title run.
No, what happened at Auburn and Tennessee is different. It wasn’t just that Malzahn and Pruitt were sent away; it was the way both programs managed to mimic the aforementioned M-1, achieving terminal velocity in front of an audience both bedazzled and bewildered at the speed and the timing of the resulting bombshells and their respective thuds.
It’s difficult to decide which crater was the largest. Gus Malzahn’s career record at Auburn was 68-35 (66.0%) and 39-27 (59.1%) in the SEC. He won a national championship as an assistant coach and guided Auburn to another championship game appearance as its head coach, two things Pat Dye did not accomplish there. He also was 3-5 against Nick Saban, which looks mediocre until you consider that Saban is 93-12 against the rest of the SEC since coming to Alabama in 2007. That means Malzahn alone managed to account for a fifth of all SEC wins against Saban and knock Alabama out of potential national championship bids at least twice during that time period.
He was let go.
He was let go … for Bryan Harsin.
There’s no way to tell how Harsin’s career is going to turn out. This is commentary about the thought processes inherent in a pair of athletic departments, not a teardown of Bryan Harsin. However, what needs to be said is that Harsin, despite coaching all but one of his eight seasons at Boise State, never managed to lose fewer than two games in a season, which is a prerequisite in the Mountain West Conference for being included in the national-level discussion. He also doesn’t come into Auburn with the reputation as an ace recruiter.
In other words, he’s not the guy you fire Gus Malzahn to hire. You fire Gus Malzahn to hire someone with a pedigree, or a record of uncommon success, or a splashy name designed to take some of the cheese away from Alabama’s plate. Harsin’s hiring felt more like Auburn was caught having to unexpectedly replace Malzahn because Malzahn chose to leave on his own accord, which is not what happened.
However, you can – and probably should – make the argument that Tennessee one-upped (one-downed?) Auburn when it did the following, in sequence: finished with a 3-7 record, announced an internal investigation had turned up multiple and significant potential NCAA violations, then fired head coach Jeremy Pruitt, along with “accepting” a notice of “retirement” from athletic director Phil Fulmer, hired an athletic director from Central Florida, empowered a search group to find a coach, and ultimately hired the head coach who had most previously worked under the athletic director while at Central Florida, who sports a three-year track record of declining results after taking over from the previous coach.
There is so much to unpack in that paragraph, it should come encased in a Samsonite product. The only thing that makes sense is the 3-7 record, because for a year now, Tennessee has been coming unwound like a Seth Thomas clock that found itself caught underneath a CSX locomotive. It wasn’t that Pruitt didn’t deserve to find himself separated from service – he mismanaged Tennessee’s quarterback situation, wasn’t able to translate his defensive prowess to the field and, if Tennessee’s compliance division seriously couldn’t avoid an investigation spinning up publicly (and the charges are legit), he had to answer for his lack of leadership.
But so late in the 2020-2021 cycle? After the early signing period was over? In a Covid-affected season? Before the results of the investigation were known?
Yes, he was let go.
He was let go … for Josh Heupel.
Unlike Auburn, Tennessee probably didn’t have many other options. While there are legitimate questions about why the Vols didn’t give stronger consideration to in-house assistant coach Tee Martin or Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott, it was likely due most to not being able to sell boosters and fans on a second consecutive head coach being hired without significant head coaching experience.
But Josh Heupel?
Tennessee carved its own path largely due to the very public release of information concerning its in-house investigation into alleged recruiting violations. Unfortunately, that path is one that leads straight to a storm sewer. And now the Vol Navy will have to float on it.
Tennessee even hired assistant coach Kevin Steele away from Auburn during this time, gave him a contract, and now may end up parting ways with him just a few days later – ostensibly having to pay him anyway. Steele was originally an option to succeed Malzahn at Auburn before the Auburn booster network fragmented over the plan. He may end up having the ignominious distinction of getting cut loose from both falling objects in the same month.
Heupel comes to Tennessee from Central Florida, where his three-year track record went 12-1, 10-3, 6-4. He lost two bowl games and won one.
The final reality here is that either Harsin or Heupel could end up being a great coach one day. But the operative word there is “could,” and there are a hundred-plus other FBS coaches about whom you can make an equal statement. There are very few that are known to be good, and fewer still that are great. And to be fair, there probably weren’t a lot of people who were looking at the Toledo program in early 1990, and its green-as-grass young head coach Nick Saban, and predicting him to one day eclipse Paul “Bear” Bryant as the greatest ever.
But Auburn and Tennessee are not Toledo. They’re not even Michigan State, Saban’s next stop as a head man. These are supposed to be two of the SEC’s colonels in service of five-star general Alabama; instead, they made the kind of moves that developmental programs would make.
This, of course, leads to the question of how Alabama would have handled this, or how Alabama will handle it someday when Nick Saban’s tenure inevitably ends. The fact Alabama lost offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian to Texas in the middle of all this also muddies Alabama’s waters a bit. There were some who believed Sarkisian would have slid neatly into Saban’s seat had Saban retired in the next couple of years, and if that’s true – emphasis on “if” – Alabama needs a new succession plan.
Or, Alabama’s eventual plan might be to wait everything out and then make the best choice available when the time comes. When it does, it very well could prove to be as challenging for Alabama as it appeared to be for both Auburn and Tennessee, as hiring coaches is not easy. But we believe, barring something completely unforeseen off the field, that Alabama will have a host of candidates competing for its vacant spot.
In the end, Auburn appeared to make the better hire between these two programs, as Harsin has a more established record of consistency, even if it’s not success at the level Auburn will eventually demand. What’s going on at Tennessee defies explanation, though. In a battle of falling tanks, at least Auburn’s tank looks to have a shot and cranking the engine and driving away from the point of impact.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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