Greeson: Auburn football turmoil raises many questions

Greeson: Auburn football turmoil raises many questions

December 15th, 2011 by Jay Greeson in Sports

OK, let's piece together what appears to be an Auburn football program that seems 11 light years rather than 11 months from winning the national championship.

The defensive coordinator vamoosed for the same job at Central Florida. The offensive coordinator took about a 40-percent pay cut to be the head coach at Arkansas State. The team's most talented player has been suspended indefinitely for unknown reasons.

There appears to be some work to do in the offseason beyond bowl preparation and recruiting capsules, huh?.

Here's a crazy thought: In the win-now, win-always culture that is college football, Auburn head coach Gene Chizik's career at Auburn could very well be defined by who he lands as his next OC and DC as much as he was by winning the program's first national title since 1957.

Something is obviously amiss.

Former Tigers offensive guru Gus Malzahn was introduced as the ASU head coach Wednesday, leaving behind a litany of questions considering he left for arguably the lowest-profile job to which he was linked -- especially since he turned down a reported $3 million last year at Vandy for the reported $850,000 salary in his native state of Arkansas.

Maybe he noticed that former high school stud coach Hugh Freeze turned two years at Arky State into the Ole Miss gig. Maybe all the rumors about Malzahn being the "hot" name were just rumors and this was the first hard offer he received other than Vandy. Maybe he got tired of hearing about his lack of head coaching experience at the college level. Maybe Malzahn realized that a Vandy-type job was the ceiling offer he'd get without being a head coach first. Maybe he was rightly informed that two good years at ASU and he could catapult to a big-boy job. Maybe Auburn's struggles this fall -- and the noticeable absence of Cam Newton -- tarnished Malzahn's shooting star a touch and caused the defensively-minded Chizik to re-think his dedication to Malzahn's spread offense.

Any of these could be true and all of them seem somewhat plausible. But that many "maybes" is not the foundation of college football success, and that many questions heading into the recruiting season is troubling. (More troubling, though, for Auburn fans may be which members of Auburn's staff are looking to go with Malzahn and/or what becomes of Tropper Taylor if he is not promoted from recruiting ace/receivers coach to offensive coordinator.)

That said, the Malzahn defection is probably more about timing than the Tigers. The fact that Malzahn is staying with Auburn to coach in the bowl game is telling about his view of the program. Plus, as his window to strike while the iron was BCS blazing was closing, he embraced the opportunity to go to his home state.

"This is where I learned football, from Arkansas high school coaches," Malzahn told The Associated Press while being introduced as Arkansas State's next coach Wednesday. "I'm not a normal college coach as far as the progression goes. So, I've always looked for the right place at the right time. Guess what? This is the right place and the right time."

But the hand-wringing and posturing and the "Sky-is-falling" claims seem overstated. The Auburn fan base tired of former coach Tommy Tuberville in large part because his staff rarely changed and most outside observers felt Tuberville and Co. grew soft and stale. So for Auburn fans -- and Auburn antagonists for that matter -- to bemoan Malzahn's departure is playing both sides against the middle.

The timing and bunching of these events, though, is head-scratching. It's possible that there is serious trouble on the Plains. It's also possible that the old wives' tale of bad things happening threes is applicable here. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof's decision to leave was no doubt mutual after the Tigers were record-settingly bad on that side of the ball in 2011. Mike Dyer, who has more than 2,000 yards rushing in two seasons and was the MVP of the BCS title victory over Oregon last January, has some major hurdles to clear to return to the program, but player discipline is something every program must deal with.

Combined with Malzahn's departure, though, the questions seem to out-number the answers in Auburn right now. The stream of events magnify the issue of course, because on its face any of the three are an everyday occurrence in big-time college football.

When they happen in bunches, though, the rumors start, and for Chizik and Co. the questions appear to be problems. Something that seems hard to believe since the Tigers are still the reigning BCS champs.