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What if Auburn Had Hired Kirby Smart?

Around this time six years ago, Auburn was tiring of Gene Chizik, who was on the way to arguably the worst season in a generation. By year’s end, the choice for Auburn’s new coach was down to two—Gus Malzahn and Kirby Smart.

We all know the rest of the story. Both interviewed strongly. Smart, who was Alabama’s defensive coordinator, had supporters, including former head football coach Pat Dye. In the end, Auburn’s appreciation for what Malzahn did in the 2010 championship year was enough to get him the job.

But what if?

What if Auburn had taken Dye’s advice and hired the veteran coordinator in Tuscaloosa? What would things look like today? Would they be better? Would Smart be the person he is today, widely rated among the top five coaches in America? It’s a fascinating question with no good answer.

Malzahn came firing out of the gates and led Auburn to the improbable run of 2013 and a near national championship. Smart did the same thing at Georgia last season in his second year. Despite similar starts, Smart is generally considered by the media and fans to be the better coach. He also has built-in advantages.

Smart leads the state program in one of the most fertile recruiting areas in America. He has no competition within its borders—sorry Georgia Tech. Malzahn battles one of the all-time greats who does coach at the state school. This gives Georgia a huge advantage.

It’s highly doubtful Smart could have pulled off the 2013 season. Malzahn knew the personnel better and, in a sense, caught lightening in a bottle. The bigger question is whether, beyond that, would Smart have accomplished more as Auburn’s coach?

Take away the 12–2 SEC Championship Season (and it’s probably not fair to do so), and Malzahn’s record in his remaining games stands at 37–21. Compare records in their first two seasons, and they are nearly identical. Smart went 21–7 compared to Malzahn’s 20–7. Both came within seconds of a national championship.

The difference in perception today is that Smart is viewed as the up and coming heir apparent to Nick Saban. Malzahn is the guy viewed as saving his job by beating his two rivals last season while they ranked tops in the country. Smart is still on his honeymoon. Malzahn is viewed with skepticism by more than a few fans. Should Smart continue on his trajectory and lead Georgia to another playoff appearance, then the conversation changes.

It’s probably fair to say that Kirby would have a tougher go at Auburn. Dealing with at best a flawed and at worst an inept athletic director in Jay Jacobs through the early years, plus the on-going battle and yearly showdown with Alabama, it’s clear Georgia has the easier path. Playing in the SEC East doesn’t hurt by a long shot.

As the Auburn faithful continue to come to grips with the idea of having Malzahn around for the long haul, Georgia continues to flourish like nothing we’ve seen since the Herschel Walker days. Is it too early to declare not hiring Smart a mistake on Auburn’s part? The news cycle and media of the day suggests yes. In reality, it’s just too early to tell.

It’s not easy being Auburn. It’s not easing winning consistently on the Plains. They used to say that about Georgia until Kirby arrived. Will they be saying it in five years?

Time will tell.


  1. Zach Taylor Zach Taylor says:

    It’s a fantastic question. Would Smart have leaned on Nick Marshall, or even recruited him? Absolutely not. Would Smart have gotten the defense on the right track sooner? Absolutely. Its really a wash for those first two years.

    But starting in year 3, who would have the program stabilized?

    Smart is the clear answer there.

    Volatility got Auburn to two 10 win seasons under Gus. It’s also led to sub-par years and, even in the good years, miserable finishes.

    Smart likely couldn’t get Auburn past alabama, much less a CFP. But I’d put a lot of money on Smart getting Auburn to 3 straight 10 win seasons, looking for a 4th. And, in year 6, fans wouldn’t be scratching their heads at what was going on.

  2. neonbets says:

    What if Auburn hired Charlie Strong? Also a candidate early–until he withdrew–and we all know how well it eventually played out for him in Texas.

    As you stated, it’s too early to judge Smart. Go back and look at the palpable histrionics of Auburn message boards when there was a threat of Arkansas or the NFL poaching Malzahn after his first year.

    This fixation on the head coach is little more than ‘greedy reductionism’. [From Daniel Dennet: This is a kind of erroneous reductionism. Whereas “good” reductionism means explaining a thing in terms of what it reduces to (for example, its parts and their interactions), greedy reductionism occurs when in their eagerness for a bargain, in their zeal to explain too much too fast, scientists and philosophers (and college football fans!) … underestimate the complexities, trying to skip whole layers or levels of theory in their rush to fasten everything securely and neatly to (a simple, easy to digest) foundation.

    The foundation for Auburn fans is Malzahn. But for Gus, all would be so swell!

    What I mean here is there’s a lot of factors that go into being a great program. It’s extremely difficult and frustrating to find the reason for failures. For example, consider the location of the schools, SEC-East vs SEC West, the slight (but very meaningful) advantage of recruiting Atlanta, not having to recruit in-state vs Saban, Athens as a city vs Auburn as a city (hate to admit it, but I like Athens better and I suspect I am not alone), alumni/trustee influence (don’t know if it’s fair, but Auburn has a bad reputation here courtesy of Bobby Lowder), etc., etc., etc.

    Would Kirby Smart have resolved all of these issues in Auburn’s favor? Possibly, but I doubt it.

  3. Zach Taylor Zach Taylor says:

    The discussion about recruiting for UGA vs Auburn doesn’t hold water. Auburn, by most everyone’s account, is right there with EVERYONE, Alabama and UGA included. It’s what happens AFTER that.

    To me, giving Smart an edge because he’s at UGA and therefore in a better position to recruit makes ZERO sense.

    Take that argument of in-state recruits as it pertains to Alabama. Auburn is fighting Saban to a stalemate with the best players in Alabama, despite the fact that Alabama is THE SCHOOL in the state. If that argument was valid, why the disparity between the two schools?

    Answer 1: recruiting is national and has been for a decade. You can win national championships recruiting outside your state.

    Answer 2: player development. The number one knock (maybe number two?) on Malzahn. Not IF he can get the players, but what he DOES with them.

    • Pine Mt Tiger Pine Mt Tiger says:

      Some validity in what you say about national recruiting but if you don’t think the in state flagship program does’t have a leg up on the other schools in that state, your living in a different universe.

      • Zach Taylor Zach Taylor says:

        I’m not saying that at all. I agree the major state schools always have a leg up. But 3-4 wins a year? Program volatility as weve seen?
        I dont believe that at all.

    • fasttimes says:

      to Zach’s point

      Former Auburn WR Ricardo Louis – “The Browns understand that I was in a scheme at Auburn the didn’t require me to run very many routes, very diverse or complex routes and the fact that I was not developed as a receiver.” “

  4. Pine Mt Tiger Pine Mt Tiger says:

    Mute question to me because I don’t think Kirby Smart really wanted the job. Had he got it, he would’ve left for Athens as soon as Mark Ritch was run out of town because as you say Jay:
    “it’s clear Georgia has the easier path. Playing in the SEC East doesn’t hurt by a long shot.”

    • fasttimes says:


      but this is correct. we would have had smart for two years and then he would have headed “home” to athens, assuming richt still got canned.

      i know people don’t like the criticism of gus, but asking “what if we hired X coach” is more of a waste of time in my opinion.

      • Zach Taylor Zach Taylor says:

        Agreed. And, to be frank, there was no home run hire out there. Still isn’t. Likely won’t be. Doesn’t take away from the job being done in the here and now.

    • AubTigerman AubTigerman says:

      I don't think Smart ever intended to come to Auburn. It’s no secret that Smart made demands on Auburn that he almost certainly knew would not be met. It looked like he was just using Auburn to boost his resume i.e. to help him be more attractive not just in Tuscaloosa but especially to any future suitors.

  5. sullivan013 sullivan013 says:

    I wonder,…How many other top ten ranked teams with a victory over another top ten team and loss to third top ten ranked team on the last play of the game are having this same discussion about which coach they should have hired six years ago?

    I get the frustration, guys, but damn.

    The very reason for this level of expectation are the results of Gus Malzahn’s input and influence on the program – 2009, 2010, 2013 and 2017. Say what you want about what you’d like to see, but look at some other Auburn coaches and count the number of losses suffered in their first six years.

    Pat Dye – 21 losses in six years
    Shug Jordan – 24 losses in six years
    Tommy Tuberville – 23 losses (30 if you count his time at Ole Miss)

    And one more – Nick Saban – 22 losses (16 at LSU 2000-2004 and 6 at Alabama 2007).

    How many has Gus had so far in his sixth year? 22. Granted, we may suffer more as this year progresses, but even now we can’t be counted out of any game, even against our top rivals.

    • War_Eagle_2010 War_Eagle_2010 says:


    • Zach Taylor Zach Taylor says:

      So, what you are saying is, if Gus losses two more games this year, he will have a worse record than all of those coaches?

      Add in:
      At least one loss in September.
      One bowl win.
      Miserable record against SEC rivals.

    • Zach Taylor Zach Taylor says:

      Also, counting losses for Tubby and Saban at previous schools is irrelevant, and frankly, total mis-information. You'd have to add 3 losses from Gus time at Arkansas State.

      Therefore, Gus has 25 losses in his first six years, ranking him below them all…..without even finishing this season out. Do I also have to point out how they played at least one fewer games per season, not counting the SEC championship for Shug and Dye?

      • sullivan013 sullivan013 says:

        One or two fewer games and a similar number of losses? Careful now, such talk would favor Gus Malzahn’s winning percentage over Shug, Dye and Tuberville.

        Nick Saban’s numbers are from his time in the SEC West. So were Tommy Tuberville’s. Do you really want include Nick Saban’s .592 winning percentage at Michigan State?

        • greyfox says:

          Careful, Sully…Gus haters don’t really like to see the whole picture. Cherry-picking tastes better to Zach.

  6. War_Eagle_2010 War_Eagle_2010 says:

    If Gus were at UGA don’t you think he’d be pumping out 10 win seasons too? The SEC East is weaker top bottom than the West and has been for the past 10 years or so, and UGA rarely plays Saban. No, Kirby’s path is far easier than Gus’. Not to say Auburn couldn’t be better than it is, Gus certainly made a mistake hiring Herb hand, and he made a mistake with Jeremy Johnson. Still, I don’t think Kirby would be any better for Auburn, he might even be worse.

    • dyingculture dyingculture says:

      So true! If Malzahn were at Georgia, he would go to the SEC championship every year, AND he would have the reputation of being this mad, evil offensive genius, the greatest offensive mind that college football had ever seen.

  7. audad says:

    This Sat. we reach the halfway point of the season, and will probably be a good indicator of what to expect in the second half. If Stidham and the offense that has been struggling so much are flustered and hampered by the environment in Starkville and we struggle to beat an inferior Miss. State team or even lose, then I shudder to think what it might be like in Athens and Tuscaloosa in November.

  8. zotus zotus says:

    Jay, all of us make decisions. And we all, for better or worse, have been witness to some of the decisions that others have made.

    The thing about those pesky decisions — after all the mulling them over … and, after all that is to be said has been said … and, all that is to done has been done — if a decision is actually made, those that make decisions make them in the present tense. And, once made, no remaking that particular decision. Impossible. The die is cast, and — for better or for worse — there will be consequences (unintended or otherwise) that come. That’s life. It comes with the territory.

    While it is impossible to turn back the clock and get a do-over with any decision, and futile to try to imagine what life would have been if path “A” would have been taken instead of path “B”, the good news is most folks get another ‘bite at the apple.’

    The good news is if the first bite didn’t literally kill you, you’ll get the opportunity to make another decision. Decisions begat decisions. It comes with the territory.

    The best advice I ever got as a young man was that: “We all will make decisions in life that we will look back on and want to have back. No dishonor in that. Reflect on it. Learn from it. If you still think it was a mistake to have made the decision, don’t make the same mistake, twice. ”
    Jay, to comment on the subject at hand, I’ll start where you started, and say it this way:

    Decision #1 –> Around this time six years ago, “the powers that be at Auburn” came to the conclusion that the decision that was made by Auburn AD Jay Jacobs to offer the Auburn HC job to Gene Chizik was a mistake. Then “the powers that be at Auburn” made the decision to fire Gene Chizik and pay his buy-out money.

    Decision #2 –> Then “the powers that be at Auburn” made the decision to allow Jay Jacobs stay in his job as Auburn AD even while rebuking his performance as Auburn AD.

    Decision #3 –> Then “the powers that be at Auburn” made the decision to allow Jay Jacobs to vet, interview and then decide which candidates would receive job offers for the Auburn HC job, and in what order would they receive the potential offer.

    Decision #4 –> Then Auburn AD Jay Jacobs made the decision to make the job offer to be Auburn’s next HC, first, to Gus Malzahn.

    Decision #5 –> Then Auburn AD Jay Jacobs made the decision to publicly call-out writers and other folks who observed that Jabobs’ decision to make the Auburn HC job offer to Malzahn had all the earmarks of the Jabobs’ decision to make the HC job offer to Chizik.

    Decision #6 –> Then Auburn AD Jay Jacobs made the decision to argue, from his bully pulpit, that Gus Malzahn was an offensive genius and one of the best minds in college football.

    Decision #7 –> Then Auburn AD Jay Jacobs made the decision to put that $49-million on the table for Gus Malzahn.

    Decision #8 –> Then Auburn AD Jay Jacobs made the decision to move to Gainesville.
    Nobody really knows how it would have played out if “the powers that be at Auburn” and/or Jay Jacobs had made the decision to take path “A” instead of path “B” back when all the decisions were made.

    I’ve said before, and I’ll say it again: This is not on Malzahn. He’s just been along for the ride. He’s won the lottery. But, Gus Malzahn is out of his depth in this league as Head Football Coach. As was Gene Chizik. No dishonor in that.

    Auburn, unlike some folks like to say, is not out of its depth in this league. No need to settle. And, no time to go wobbly now — Auburn needs to move on from Gus Malzahn.

  9. fasttimes says:

    the oline is the problem and unfortunately thats probably a 2 plus year job to fix it.

    how did our coach let it get in that bad of shape and why does he only hire oline coaches he has worked with in the past?

    • Orange Talon Orange Talon says:

      Careful, the Gus lovers don’t want to discuss responsibility when it’s far easier just to blame the AD, the O-line, the officials, etc. or anyone/thing other than the ONE PERSON whose shoulders the responsibility falls on.

  10. meh130 says:

    Mark Richt had been recruiting well at Georgia for a decade. Richt had a solid coaching staff (including DC Jeremy Pruitt). Smart did not need to rebuild or reload. He only had to tweak the sails.

    Georgia is in the SEC East, and the SEC East has been a division in decline for almost a decade, since Urban Meyer left UF.

    Meanwhile, the SEC West, Saban has built a level of program unmatched in the last 30 plus years. Les Miles kept Saban’s success at LSU rolling. Texas A&M had a few strong years with Johnny Manziel. 2014 saw both Mississippi State and Ole Miss in the Top 5.

    Georgia was a much easier road.

  11. meh130 says:

    Regarding the O-Line talent. Out of the 12 players in the 3-deep depth chart, 10 of them are rated 4 stars by at least one of the ratings organizations. One of those who is not is Jack Driscoll, is a starter.

    We had better talent last year, but still struggled early.

    We lost a lot of experience, and combined starts is the most important statistic when predicting how well and O-Line will perform. We basically had a second string O-Line last year comprised entirely of Austin Golson. As a result, even with injuries to starters, we had few true second string players getting starts, except for Tega, when Golson was shifted to Guard or Right Tackle.

    Our O-Line problems are a combination of lack of game experience, and coaching. I think Herb Hand did a level of damage to our O-Line that will take two years to fix.

    The good news is the current O-Line is loaded with 4-star redshirt juniors. And it is unlikely any of them will declare for the draft.

  12. easyedwin easyedwin says:

    Relax, errybody!
    We be #8 in the country.
    We will win vs MSU.

  13. Tiger4Life says:

    Kirby out recruiting us has nothing to do with the SEC East…
    If Gus’ offense of 2013 would happen every year (we are light years from that)…then I would be OK with it…
    Frustrated that he brought in DEFENSIVE stability with Steele– and we aren’t an offensive juggernaut (opposite of 2010)

  14. Orange Talon Orange Talon says:

    Oops. Worked by an non-ranked, 3-2 team.

    I’m thinking the “what if” question(s) are here to stay.