If you’ve been gleefully watching the Barners get their hopes up about their next head coaching hire, you’re not alone. Rarely has delusion met such a constant bedfellow as when Auburn Man bats his eyelashes at potential coaching hires.
We’ll first take a look at these odds, and then we’ll discuss why so very many of them are sucker bets:
Let’s start with the bottom line first, and then I’ll tell you why: Bill O’Brien, Matt Rhule, and the Field are the best bets here.
The issue of course is that Auburn Man is under the delusion that Auburn is, at the best of times, an A-List job. It’s not. It never has been. Auburn’s greatest success has come from the ranks of locals, diamonds in the rough of the G5 ranks, or rising guys at worse programs. Name the last time Auburn was able to secure the services of an unqualified A-list, top-tier coach in demand from programs that expect to compete for national titles.
You can’t. Because it’s literally never happened.
Instead, Auburn’s most successful runs have happened from local guys like Pat Dye and Pat Sullivan; from those who’ve overachieved at bad programs, like Tommy Tuberville; and those who are hot names in the midmajor circuit, like Gus Malzahn. They’ve never even been seriously considered by the Broyles-list tier assistants, like Kirby Smart.
And that is at Auburn’s best times. These are hardly those. The roster is in shambles. The NSD Class is nonexistent. Morale is at an all-time low. The boosters very publicly tried to coup a coach they had just hired five months previously, including some tasty character assassination. To that, add that they share a state with the greatest dynasty in CFB history with one rival, and the heir apparent to that dynasty is their other rival just three hours away.
This is a team with depleted talent and little forthcoming, meddling boosters, a cult of entitlement around the players who are on campus, a university that is about to be $41.5 million in the hole for two major buyouts in two years, and then the on-field stuff.
At best, it’s B-list job at a regional, B-list program.
So, here’s who we can instantly cross off and why:
- Hugh Freeze, may or may not already have an informal SEC ban from Greg Sankey. Rumor is that he does. Moreover, Liberty just upped him to an 8-year deal, fully guaranteed, at $5 million per. Auburn would have to buy that out, then pay him $8-10 million per season. That’s not going to happen...even if it could.
- Lane Kiffin has a better roster, a better recruiting pipeline, better job security and saner boosters, walks among Oxford as a god, and is paid what he is worth...as well as some other renowned Ole Miss perks. Ahem. The man is comfy at Ole Miss, can win there, is 60 minutes from a major city, and could stay there likely until Alabama comes calling in a few seasons (and they will). Auburn is a demotion in every sense of the word in 2022.
- Luke Fickell’s eyes have always been on three jobs, and they’re not budging: Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State. When one or more of those open up, it’s his for the asking. He’s paid well, at a place he knows well, in a region that is his hometown. And the simple fact is that what he has built in Cincinnati is closer to the Playoffs than Auburn is. All the things about Kiffin apply to Fickell, but on steroids. He’s there until one of the primo positions comes a’knocking. Sure, Wisconsin or Nubber may be able to pry him loose, but not Auburn. And UNL only has the barest shot.
- Lance Leipold has deep Wisconsin ties; it’s his home state, he coached 13 years there, the UW system is his alma mater, and he turned UW-Whitewater into a D3 power. Nebraska wants him, but the bidding war is about to be on. It has been rumored that UW’s job is his for the taking when KU’s season winds down. There’s a reason the news about Leipold has been so quiet the last few weeks — everyone knows the score. This will be your next Wisconsin head coach.
- Deion Sanders is an intriguing man that is about to set up another bidding war too. But, the way Prime plays it loose, and as structured as the SEC is, it already seems a bad fit. Worse, he is an urban creature. This is a man who thrives on flash, attention, bright lights, and attracting attention with his oversized personality. He wants to win, for sure. And Georgia Tech and Arizona State are far better fits geographically, roster-wise, competitive-wise. Auburn is a career-killer, and his is just getting started. Seriously, imagine Prime in Atlanta recruiting? He’d be hell on wheels.
Now, as for who makes the most sense:
- Matt Rhule — Did great things at Temple and Baylor. And if you can handle Baylor boosters, and run a clean program along the way, then it speaks well of your coaching acumen and emotional intelligence. He’s available and will be a hot commodity. Would he trade the messy roster of Carolina for that of Auburn? Can they afford him? Serious questions for a serious candidate who would be far better than the Barn deserves
- Bill O’Brien — He has the veneer of championship on him, both from Saban and Belichik. He is accustomed to rebuilding rosters. He can handle difficult bosses — and the McNairs are as bad as they get. He’s uncontroversial. He wins games. He’s everything Rhule is, and for many of the same reasons. What he did at Penn State quite literally saved the program. He also might be easier to get, as his contract expires in January, and it almost certainly won’t be renewed. The biggest issue for BoB is whether he’s committed to college or not. He is an NFL critter, and I don’t know that he’s ever shed that love despite his best work having been done in college.
- Field — Let’s face it, with a B-tier job, at a program in shambles, it’s not the big names that are as likely to get hired as anyone else. Rather, given Auburn tradition, it will be someone hot from the midmajors (Brennan at SJSU, for instance), someone excelling a traditionally worse school (Jonathan Smith at Oregon State, for instance), or someone local who can fit into what is a demanding culture (Neal Brown or Willi Fritz, for instance).
Alongside Bill O’Brien, the Field is probably the best bet on the board.