There once was a Led Zeppelin song called “The Song Remains The Same.” Well, when it comes to coaching searches, the names remain the same. From school to school and conference to conference.
Hi there, Jimbo Fisher.
Well, hello, Gary Patterson.
When you look at the lists for Tennessee, Arkansas and Auburn, there are plenty of similarities. Arkansas and Auburn are reportedly interested in TCU’s Patterson. Tennessee and Auburn are reportedly interested in Fisher. Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart has had his name tied to both Tennessee and Auburn. There’s been speculation about Arkansas State’s Gus Malzahn at both Arkansas and Auburn.
Last night, we worked the phones to get the latest skinny — as of last night around 7pm ET — on all three coaching searches in the SEC. In speaking with an industry source as well as a source inside the Auburn athletic department, here’s what we’ve been able to piece together regarding the Tigers’ search:
1. The biggest question marks for Auburn involve off-the-field issues. First, the NCAA’s latest investigation into the school. It had been reported that AU assistants Curtis Luper and Trooper Taylor had been pulled off the road before Gene Chizk and his staff — including Luper and Taylor — were fired. But AuburnSports.com reported yesterday (behind a paywall) that Luper, Taylor and fellow assistant Tommy Thigpen had decided to continue to try and hold AU’s recruiting class together. A nice gesture on their parts, but will the NCAA be happy with that?
2. The three would not be allowed to make calls and try to hang onto recruits if AD Jay Jacobs felt there was a greater NCAA risk in letting them do so. Jacobs’ sales job to a potential hire will have to be spot-on. Allowing these three to handle recruiting matters in the interim suggests that he feels AU is not guilty of any major wrongdoing. That will surely be his spin during the coaching search process. Whether prospective coaches believe him or not will be an issue.
3. One source told us that any coach looking at Auburn’s job should first call Lane Kiffin (Southern Cal), Al Golden (Miami), Larry Fedora (North Carolina) and Bill O’Brien (Penn State) to see if what they were told about possible NCAA sanctions during the hiring process actually meshed with what their programs actually, eventually received. That answer is no, by the way. A coach considering AU’s position will be aware of NCAA situation and all of those cases mentioned above.
4. The other issue facing Jacobs during this search is his own job security. He was on the hot seat at season’s end right along with Chizik. Many fans, boosters, and even some board members wanted his head on a plate. Whoever Auburn chases, Jacobs will have to convince that person that he’ll be Auburn’s AD for the long haul. The potential for NCAA sanctions and for a new boss to take over will both make the Tiger job a bit tougher to sell.
5. We asked one of our sources if there was also a “Nick Saban fear factor” at play. Meaning: Who would want to be the #2 guy in the state to Saban? The response we got back: “Saban won’t be at Alabama forever and there are plenty of ex-Sabanites who were more than willing to step into the SEC already.” Derek Dooley, formerly of Tennessee, and Will Muschamp of Florida are the two obvious examples.
6. We’ve been told that Fisher — an “ex-Sabanite” himself — is at the top of Auburn’s wish list. As we reported a few weeks ago, his recruiting ties for Florida State mesh perfectly with those he’d need on the Plains: the Florida panhandle, southern Georgia, and southern Alabama. Before the NCAA investigation story broke, we’d been told that Fisher would prefer Auburn’s job to Tennessee’s due to the recruiting base. But how much will the NCAA cloud hanging over AU impact his thinking? Also, he’s not believed to be pleased with the administration at FSU. Would he feel comfortable going to work for Jacobs knowing that he might have a new boss sooner rather than later?
7. Fisher’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, will most assuredly play Auburn, Tennessee and Florida State against one another to try and land the splashiest deal possible for his client. Who would win that bidding war (if Fisher is seriously unhappy in Tallahassee)? Easy answer: Fisher and Sexton.
8. TCU’s Patterson said this week that “When someone calls, you should always listen because it’s the right thing to do. But I’ve been at TCU for 15 years now, and I’ve always let that fact speak for itself.” In other words, Patterson and his agent, George Bass, would chat with Auburn. But the industry source we spoke to indicated that if Patterson were to leave TCU, Arkansas would probably make the most sense right now because the Hogs have cash to burn and no NCAA officials snooping around. That said, it appears that he’s already balked at the Razorbacks deal. Therefore, we believe he’d be a real long shot to land at Auburn. In fact, we think it’s more likely he’d change his mind and actually move to Fayetteville before moving to the Plains.
9. Whoever takes over at Auburn will need to know the lay of the land. That points to Malzahn and Smart. Malzahn served as Chizik’s offensive coordinator for three seasons and won a BCS championship ring in 2010. He’s only been a head coach for one season at Arkansas State, but he knows the AU family and they know him. Smart, on the other hand, knows the state and he knows the enemy. It’s difficult to picture Auburn grabbing an ex-Bama assistant, but Pat Dye once served under Paul “Bear” Bryant. Of course, Dye had also moved on and become a head coach at East Carolina and Wyoming before taking the reins on the Plains. Of these two prospects, Malzahn seems to make the most sense.
10. Another factor in all of this is the three-man committee Jacobs will lean upon during “his” search. Ex-Tigers Bo Jackson, Pat Sullivan, and Mac Crawford will assist in finding the right man for the job. As listed above, that won’t be easy due to the dynamics currently at play. If they have trouble finding the right coach who will actually yes, might they get desperate?
11. The industry source we spoke to said that Auburn and ex-Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino — himself a former AU aide — appear destined to partner up at this point. For weeks, we heard the name Petrino batted about when we spoke with Auburn folks. But just like everywhere else, there’s a real split when it comes to the coach who lost his last job in scandal. Some in the AU athletic family believe the coach is a winner and his past troubles should be forgiven. Others just plain don’t trust him.
12. As we’ve written previously, Petrino longs for another shot in the SEC. His father has actually admitted that to the media. Petrino’s agent has reached out to officials at Auburn, Kentucky (who hired Mark Stoops yesterday) and Tennessee from what we’ve been told. The Tigers — if they can’t lure in someone else under the current circumstances — could sign Petrino to an ironclad deal that would lock him to Auburn with a high-priced escape clause. He’d sign such a deal if given the chance. NCAA issues or not. An AD on the hot seat or not. Petrino wants back in and Auburn might find itself desperate enough to take him.
13. So ironically — if the mess at Auburn prevents the school from landing a big name coach — the Tigers could actually land the best available coach completely by default. That’s if Jacobs, Jackson, Sullivan, Crawford and the rest of the AU family can hold their nose and hand Petrino a contract. Hey, Charles Barkley’s OK with it.