Gus Malzahn took the question minutes after No. 6 Georgia beat No. 4 Auburn 28-7 in the 2017 SEC championship game. That loss had barely registered when Malzhan had to justify how happy he was as the coach at Auburn.
Then a reporter fired the next question: “Gus, does that mean Arkansas should not bother asking you about their job?”
“I’m the head coach at Auburn,” Malzahn responded. “I want to be the head coach at Auburn.”
That curious exchange will be repeated this week with news that Arkansas fired Chad Morris on Sunday. After all, Malzahn is still at Auburn, where he has compiled a 15-8 record, including a 7-7 record in Southeastern Conference play, since that SEC championship game. The Tigers host Georgia and Alabama this month, and what has been a thermal seat the last two seasons will probably warm up if Auburn doesn’t win one of those games.
The Tigers might finish 8-4 with an 0-4 record against top-10 teams this season, and that includes a last-minute comeback to beat No. 11 Oregon in the opener. The inevitable second-tier bowl matchup against a Big Ten school will follow — SN projects the Tigers to meet Michigan in the Outback Bowl — and we will do the same-old job evaluation we always do when Malzahn sits in the postgame news conference. Only now, he won’t have the SEC championship backdrop behind him when the inevitable Arkansas question comes.
Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek would be foolish not to ask Malzahn, with checkbook in hand, to coach the Razorbacks. Morris compiled a 4-18 record the last two seasons, including a 0-14 record in conference play. Malzahn’s .500 record in the SEC looks pretty damn good compared to that.
This isn’t an out-of-nowhere coaching consideration, either. ESPN’s Paul Finebaum just last week was asked whether Arkansas would still want Malzahn. To that, Finebaum said, “I can’t imagine they wouldn’t want him.”
The Arkansas-Malzahn connection is straight out of the romantic comedy script — we’ve been waiting the whole time for these two to get together. You know the story by now: He played receiver at Arkansas in 1984-85, was a high school coach in the state, was offensive coordinator for the Razorbacks in 2006 and had a 9-3 record in one season at Arkansas State.
Malzahn is the best hire for Arkansas. It would be better than a Group of 5 hire such as Memphis’ Mike Norvell or Arkansas State’s Blake Anderson. Morris seemed like a good idea at the time, given how he turned around SMU. But there’s no comparison to a coach who has experience — and success — leading a team in the SEC West. At the very least, we’ve seen Malzahn win a SEC championship and play for another one.
Malzahn also has proven he can beat the top teams in the SEC. He’s 4-9 against Alabama and LSU and has more wins over Alabama than any other SEC team. Arkansas is 2-11 against those teams in the same seven-year stretch and has lost 13 in a row to the Crimson Tide. For what it’s worth, Malzahn is 6-1 against Arkansas.
It fits. Everybody knows it fits. You know what the SEC’s mantra is, and that applies here, too: It just means more.
That’s why LSU’s Ed Orgeron works at LSU. He’s one of them. That’s why Dan Mullen left Mississippi State for Florida. He’s at home Gainesville. Now, you can make the argument Malzahn leaving for Arkansas would be a demotion — and it is, knowing Auburn is 85-43 and Arkansas is 58-65 since 2010.
But it’s also home, and Malzahn would be given time to rebuild Arkansas without having to constantly answer questions about whether he wants to leave for Auburn and deal with Nick Saban, who has shown no intention of retiring any time soon. Perhaps, by the time he does, Malzahn would have Arkansas in position to compete again.
It ultimately comes down to where Malzahn wants to be.