Why Auburn wasn't going to hire Kirby Smart over Gus Malzahn

November 7, 2017
By Kevin Scarbinsky


Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn and Georgia head coach Kirby Smart talk at midfield Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016, before the game at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga.


This is a fact: Five years ago, when the Gene Chizik era ended, Auburn interviewed Kirby Smart, who was then the Alabama defensive coordinator, for the position of head football coach.

Another fact: Instead of Smart, Auburn hired Gus Malzahn.

Those facts have become more interesting since Smart became the Georgia head coach. The shared history is fascinating this week as the No. 1 Bulldogs visit the Tigers in a huge game with conference and national title implications for both teams.

Smart is doing in his second season in Athens what Nick Saban did, with Smart's help, in his second season in Tuscaloosa. He's rebuilding a championship program in a hurry.

Malzahn, despite winning an SEC championship and playing for a national title quicker than Smart or Saban, has come back to earth as Five-Loss Gus. In his fifth season, he's two wins away from the SEC Championship Game - or perhaps two losses away from the end of his tenure.

Look at the facts alone, and it's tempting to say Auburn made a mistake when it chose Malzahn over Smart. The truth is more elusive.

After talking to people familiar with Auburn's 2012 coaching search then and now, it's possible to draw two conclusions. Malzahn was the preferred if not preordained choice from the start. Smart had too many demands and issues for Auburn's taste.

One example: Smart wanted full control to hire his own staff. As logical as that requirement may seem, Auburn decision-makers were used to having significant input in that regard. They had identified Malzahn as the offensive coordinator they wanted on Chizik's staff.

A person familiar with Smart's Auburn interview said he told the search committee, if hired, he would tap longtime friend Mike Bobo as offensive coordinator. The committee didn't like that idea, given Bobo's mixed results as a playcaller at Georgia.

Another 2012 concern: Auburn's inner circle feared that, if Georgia were to part company with Mark Richt in the near future, Smart would leave Auburn for Athens in a heartbeat to take his dream job as head coach at his alma mater.

Throw in Smart's demands that he get a full accounting of the NCAA's investigation of Auburn at the time and that, if hired, he be allowed to coach the Alabama defense through the BCS Championship Game - neither of which was acceptable to Auburn - and there were simply too many obstacles for both sides to overcome.

It didn't matter that former Auburn head coach and longtime influencer Pat Dye, seeing some of himself in Smart, preferred that he follow Chizik. Malzahn was destined for that position. Three years later when Richt was let go, Smart landed at Georgia.

As Auburn feared he would.

Now in Smart's second season as head coach, the Bulldogs are the No. 1 team in the College Football Playoff rankings. The Tigers may be the only two-loss team with a real shot to crash the party. Malzahn has a chance to put a dent in Georgia's dream season. Smart has an opportunity to turn up the heat on Malzahn, as happened last year when unranked Georgia upset No. 9 Auburn in their first meeting as head coaches.

The Deep South's Oldest Rivalry doesn't need subplots as a selling point, but this year, it has more than usual. It includes the head coaches, who are opposites in so many ways.

It's the former defensive wizard vs. the former offensive genius. It's one coach whose supporters think the sky's the limit against a coach who gives his fan base reasons to hope and despair on a regular basis.

The man Auburn didn't hire meets the man it did for the second time with stakes that don't get much higher.

Right now, the score on the field is Smart 1, Malzahn 0. No matter what happened five years ago, it's critical for Malzahn to even that score.

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