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.
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