Kirby Smart shares his thoughts on Gus Malzahn, who is guiding changes in the SEC

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How the opening in Auburn affects football in Georgia

In a year when many believed that due to the economic hardship of the pandemic we wouldn’t see much coaching revenue, three of Georgia’s annual opponents went ahead and made coaching changes.

South Carolina went first, firing Will Muschamp and replacing him with Shane Beamer. Vanderbilt went next, saying goodbye to Derek Mason. On Monday, the Commodores hired Notre Dame’s defense coordinator, Clark Lea, to become the next coach.

Lea is a Vanderbilt alum, while Beamer spent time in the South Carolina coaching staff while working under Steve Spurrier. Both rentals had a homely feeling.

Then there’s the track in Auburn, which opened on Sunday when the school announced it would be leaving Gus Malzahn. In his eight years at the school, Malzahn went 68-35, won an SEC championship, and appeared in a national championship game.

Malzahn struggled with Auburn’s biggest foes, however, as he was 0-12 underway against Georgia, Alabama and LSU. Against the Bulldogs, he was only 2-7 and 1-5 since Kirby Smart became the Bulldogs’ head coach.

“I have a lot of respect for Gus. He’s been a very good friend of mine for a long time, ”said Smart. “I know he and Kristi will land on their feet, and he will be successful in everything he does.”

Malzahn is well compensated for leaving as the Tigers will pay him his full buyout which is north of $ 21 million. And half of that must be paid in the next 30 days.

To date, the Auburn course is the largest open. Malzahn showed that Auburn is a place where you can win and recruit, with the Tigers signing multiple top-10 classes over Malzahn’s tenure.

A handful of names have emerged as viable candidates, with Billy Napier of Lousiana-Lafeytte, Mario Cristobal of Oregon and Hugh Freeze as the outside candidates who have garnered the most attention.

The leading internal name, and one that has won lots of traction on Mondays, is defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. He was appointed interim coach following Malzahn’s resignation and has spent the past five years at Auburn. And at the time, defense was much better than offense

Whoever ends up hiring Auburn walks into the pressure cooker quite a bit, as Malzahn won 66 percent of his game and was told that was no longer good enough. The firing of Malzahn leaves Smart as the third longest regular coach in the conference, behind only Nick Saban and Mark Stoops.

“I think our profession, especially in the SEC and now the coaching profession as a whole, has gotten tougher and tougher and more competitive as the sweepstakes have gone up to win and monetize through television contracts and stuff,” said Smart. “It sets a higher expectation.”

An example of the growing revenue is the SEC’s latest TV deal with Disney / ESPN. The deal, which kicks off in the 2024 season, is expected to bring in an annual conference payout of $ 300 million. The conference is currently getting about $ 55 million from the current deal with CBS and ESPN.

Auburn and South Carolina were also willing to pony rides to leave Malzahn and Muschamp respectively. Malzahn gets $ 21 million not to coach at Auburn, while Muschamp gets $ 15 million.

“Across the board, if you look at the SEC, it’s a conference that everyone wants to attend until they’re in it,” said Smart. “They realize the toughness it creates, not just on the field, but in the recruiting world out there trying to win on the recruiting field, trying to win on the grass.”

Auburn will want to act quickly in finding his next coach, as Vanderbilt and South Carolina did. The early signing period is this week and potential clients will want to know who the coach is and what the vision is for the program. Georgia already beat Auburn in front of potential clients like 5-star linebacker Smael Mondon, 4-star cornerbacks Kamari Lassiter and Nyland Green, and 4-star offensive lineman Dylan Fairchild.

The Tigers currently have Recruitment Class No. 43 and only 12 commitments at the moment. The uncertainty could spell even more attrition for Auburn’s drawing class in 2021.

We’ve already seen some dominoes due to the decision, as 5-star linebacker Terrence Lewis posted his list of finalists on Monday. It was widely expected that Auburn would be on the list, but Lewis only mentioned Maryland and Tennessee after Malzahn’s coaching change.

Add to that the fact that players have not been able to attend these schools and it makes it even more difficult for new coaching staff, as Auburn will have.

“It’s very difficult for a recruit,” said Georgia Safety Lewis Cine. “Going out, traveling around coaches and players was something that made a big impression on me at the end of the school I wanted to go to.”

Georgia offensive lineman Ben Cleveland does have some knowledge of the impact a coaching change has on a recruit, as Georgia moved from Mark Richt to Smart while the now senior offensive lineman went through the recruiting process in the fall of 2015.

He stressed the importance of finding the right school and not so much the right coach.

“I didn’t come here for one specific person, rhyme or reason. I came here because I fell in love with this place, ”said Cleveland. “Just put your trust in this school knowing they would hire the right people and I really believe they did.”

The success of Auburn’s next coach against both Georgia and Alabama will likely go a long way in determining whether Malzahn’s firing was the right decision. If it’s the right guy for the job, Auburn can win recruiting fights against Georgia, as Malzahn did from time to time, be it Derrick Brown or Owen Pappoe.

And if they are able to win those recruiting fights, that will make beating Georgia on the field a bit of a more manageable task.

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