I realize this is one of those Catch-22 kinda situations and there’s a potential downside to issuing the equivalent of a fully leaded, 100-percent Nick Saban lie at a news conference, like, “I’m not going to be the Alabama coach.”
But if you’re Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, shouldn’t you do a little more to put your players, administrators and fan base at ease about rumors you might be headed to Arkansas than what he offered Friday?
Malzahn and Georgia coach Kirby Smart held their final news conferences at Mercedes-Benz Stadium before Saturday’s SEC Championship game. There wasn’t much in the way of news, other than the amusing anecdote that following Auburn’s 40-17 win over the Bulldogs three weeks ago at Jordan-Hare Stadium, Malzahn told Smart, “We’ll see you in Atlanta,” and Smart jokingly responded, “I’ll tell Nick (Saban) you said that.”
But there’s another story looming. There have been rumors for weeks that Arkansas is trying to lure Malzahn back to his home state and his alma mater. He played and coached as an assistant at Arkansas and also was the head coach at Arkansas State before going to Auburn in 2013. The Razorbacks recently fired Bret Beilema, one of several coaching moves in this strangest of SEC offseasons (yes, strange even by SEC standards).
Malzahn was asked about the Arkansas rumors Friday. This was his response: “I’m focused on this game. This is for the SEC championship, and I’m the head coach at Auburn.”
There wasn’t even a hint of, “I’m very happy at Auburn.” Or, “I can’t imagine a situation where I would leave.”
At least he didn’t scream, “Woooo! Pig, sooie.”
The Arkansas Democrat is reporting Malzahn is still the “top target,” although things are a bit in limbo there since the school also is looking for an athletic director to replace the fired Jeff Long.
From a negotiating standpoint, Malzahn is making the smart play. His agent is Jimmy Sexton, the most powerful man in college football because he represents seemingly every major coach (including Malzahn, Smart, Saban and Jimbo Fisher). And the joke in college football is that at Auburn, the head coach is always a two-game losing streak from being fired. Or one loss from being so fed up with the heat that he would leave.
So it would be easy to see why Malzahn would use this as leverage and might even welcome a job like Arkansas, where he could be universally embraced again. But by leaving the door wide open to a possible exit, Malzahn also created a talking point, and therefore a potential distraction, going into the game. Not that Georgia minds.
• Podcast with D.J. Shockley: Fresh “We Never Played The Game” podcastwith D.J. Shockley, the last Georgia quarterback to win an SEC title. Great stuff on parallels between 2005 and 2017 teams, his decision to almost transfer, his text exchanges with Jacob Eason and more. Go to AJC.com/sports-podcasts and click the “We Never Played The Game” tab.