Something kind of crazy happened in Auburn, Alabama, this week, which is not the first time such a statement has proven applicable and likely will not be the last. Gus Malzahn, after three seasons as head coach at Auburn, was awarded with a one-year extension by athletic director Jay Jacobs, who said that he hoped Malzahn will be at the university "a long, long time"—which is the exact wording Jacobs used to characterize the Tigers' previous two coaches (both of whom he eventually fired).
Maybe that doesn't sound so insane on its surface. Maybe you are aware that this is not an entirely rational universe we are delving into here, and maybe you recall that Malzahn is the same guy who went 12-2 in his first season as Auburn's head coach and lost in the national championship game. Maybe you view Malzahn as the offensive savant who molded Cam Newton into a brilliant quarterback during Auburn's national championship run in 2008. Here is the thing, though: Malzahn does not exactly have momentum on his side. Over the past two seasons, Auburn has finished 8-5 and 7-6; last year, the Tigers won only two Southeastern Conference games. Which means that Malzahn didn't really earn this contract extension, but thanks to the machinations of his high-powered agent, Jimmy Sexton, and the pressured realities of SEC recruiting, he got it anyway.
Still think the most high-profile college football programs are struggling to make ends meet? Well, here's what Auburn just did: By extending Malzahn's contract, Auburn put themselves on the hook for an extra $2.2 million in buyout money if they choose to fire their coach before 2020. This is something that could happen after next season if Auburn struggles again, and I have no doubt that both Malzahn and Jacobs are fully aware of this. Auburn, however, needs to maintain a certain façade in order to convince recruits in the Class of 2017 that Malzahn will be there for all four years of their potential matriculation at Auburn, and so they laid out what is objectively a shitload of money largely for public-relations purposes. Malzahn's total buyout is now nearly $9 million, which also is a shitload of money, but it wouldn't deter Jacobs from firing Malzahn if Auburn appears to regress again this season and the public pressure for action mounts.
This is, obviously, not a normal situation, because there is nothing normal about college football in the state of Alabama.
It is a most unusual dynamic, even for a sport that tends toward hyperbole and self-importance. And so at some level, this extension is about University of Alabama head coach Nick Saban, because everything in the SEC relates back to Saban at the moment, but especially the fate of Auburn, which for all its recent success will always measure itself against its in-state rival. As long as Saban chooses to remain at Alabama, Auburn will be the Pepsi to the Crimson Tide's Coca-Cola; this is why Auburn brought in Malzahn in the first place, because he is the kind of offensive mind who seemed most likely to stymie Saban's tidy sense of defensive order.
After that first season, after the Kick Six heard round the world, it appeared it might work. And it still could work, if Malzahn finds a consistent quarterback who can master his offense—something he never really did last season—and improves a defense that couldn't stop much of anyone in the SEC last season under first-year coordinator Will Muschamp.
"If (Gus) has a quarterback, they'll be fine," one Power Five conference assistant coach told ESPN's Travis Haney last spring. "That's the way it's always been."
But those things take time, and Malzahn's 2016 schedule doesn't give him that luxury. The Tigers open the season against Clemson, last year's national runner-up to Alabama; they also have September games against LSU and Texas A&M, against a pair of coaches—Les Miles and Kevin Sumlin—who also will be fighting to keep their jobs after this season, fellow travelers walking through the valley of the shadow of Saban. Jacobs knows that if those games don't go well—and if Alabama appears to be a national championship contender once again—the public pressure to dismiss Malzahn will be immense. There is no room for patience at Auburn, and nobody knows this better than Jacobs, who fired Gene Chizik in 2012, just two years after he won that national championship with Cam Newton.
So basically, Auburn just laid out an extra couple million dollars in the hope that it might lure a couple extra recruits to a school whose immediate football future remains very much in flux. There has never been much room for common sense in college football's arms race, but there especially isn't now, given that Malzahn and Saban are both represented by Sexton, who is at least partially responsible for the wild escalation in coaches' salaries over the past several seasons. The man who helped us see an extra $2.2 million as a pittance when it comes to paying a campus football coach has done it again. It doesn't really compute in the long term, but there is no such thing as long-term in this sport. Not anymore. There is only the money, and the present moment.