Auburn’s ele­phant in room is coach’s con­tract

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - COLLEGE FOOTBALL - Dan Wolken

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 last week, which now shows 13 coaches mak­ing at least $5 mil­lion a year and 39 mak­ing at least $3.5 mil­lion a 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.

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 any time 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.

MATT BUSH/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn has a seven-year, $49 mil­lion con­tract — the vast ma­jor­ity of it guar­an­teed.

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