What if Gus Malzahn would have left Auburn for the NFL after the 2013 season?
The Browns wanted their own turnaround. While Malzahn (smartly) said no, let's explore the alternate universe where he said yes.
Good morning. Happy Saturday. We’ll have coverage from Auburn football’s road game at Vanderbilt this weekend here at The Observer. With Auburn basketball’s exhibition on Wednesday night changing up the schedule and the Tigers not playing until the afternoon, I decided to push this week’s 13 For ‘13 story to this morning.
This edition of the series is a lot different than the rest of the ones so far — yes, including the Batman piece — but I felt like the morning of a 2023 football game would be a good time to fire this one off. It’s an idea I’ve had in my head for years, stemming from an old mailbag question from a while back.
Gus Malzahn with former NFL QB Jeff Blake and WR Emory Blake (Auburn Tigers)
Perhaps the greatest example of how much Auburn’s 2013 season was an out-of-nowhere whirlwind came at something called the Beef Bowl.
Gus Malzahn had engineered one of the greatest single-season turnarounds in American sports history, taking what was a hopeless 3-9 Auburn team to an SEC title and a berth in the final BCS National Championship Game in a year.
Malzahn had swept virtually every national college football coach of the year award known to man. After beating Georgia and Alabama with two unbelievable and iconic plays, followed by a video game-like SEC Championship Game win, he was getting his Tigers ready to play for a national title against an ultra-dominant Florida State team.
But Malzahn also had to spend that month denying interest in other jobs. The first big one was Texas, which Pete Thamel reported was Malzahn’s “dream job.” But Malzahn was adamant that he wanted to stay at Auburn, walking into then-athletic director Jay Jacobs’ office the day before the SEC title game to get started on an extension.
“This is where I want to be. I love Auburn,” Malzahn said in December. “You start hearing rumors about this stuff. I didn’t want our players or coaches or fans to wonder how I felt. I wanted to be here and I’m one blessed guy to be the head coach of the Auburn Tigers.”
The rumors kept going through December, as Texas lined up to swing for the fences with its coaching hire. Malzahn denied his interest in the job again, and Longhorns reporters ruled his name out of the search by the end of the month. Texas would hire Louisville head coach Charlie Strong.
Then came Auburn’s trip to Southern California to play Florida State in the historic Rose Bowl. During the bowl’s traditional prime rib dinner at Lawry’s, Malzahn was asked by a reporter if he had any interest in leaving Auburn… for the NFL.
Remember, Malzahn was just in his second season as a college head coach and had been at Arkansas State a year earlier. Now, he was fielding talk of an NFL job.
“I’m happy at Auburn,” Malzahn said in response. “I think I’ve made that clear.”
Earlier that week, CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora reported that the Cleveland Browns were interested in Malzahn to be its next head coach. The Browns had fired Rob Chudzinski after just one season, which saw Cleveland extend its playoff drought to 11 years.
Chudzinski, who had never been an NFL head coach and never got another opportunity elsewhere, hadn’t been the first choice for the Browns in 2013. That was Chip Kelly, the former Oregon head coach who squared off with Malzahn in the 2010 national championship game. The Browns heavily pursued Kelly, but he ultimately spurned them for the Philadelphia Eagles — who he won the NFC East with in Year 1.
Cleveland missed on one up-tempo, run-first spread offense innovator from the college ranks. It didn’t want to miss on another, and that was reportedly the reason behind the Browns’ interest in Malzahn. In fact, La Canfora reported that Malzahn was the candidate who had “most captured the imagination” of the Browns, and he doubled down on Cleveland’s interest during the national title game.
Malzahn turned them all down, sticking with his major contract extension at Auburn. Leaving Auburn for Texas — or any other college football program — would have been wild, considering what he was set to bring back in 2014 with a team that ran all the way to the national title game.
It’s always been hard to picture Malzahn as a fit at the NFL level. His high-school coach background was much better for the college ranks, where he did well at connecting with recruits and their families. Malzahn wouldn’t have had control of his personnel at the next level, although one of the reasons Kelly went to the Eagles was his power over the 53-man roster. The Browns also wanted whoever they hired as their head coach to have Jim Schwartz be their defensive coordinator.
Ultimately, Malzahn staying at Auburn and not going to the NFL was the obvious decision.
But you didn’t click on this newsletter for a dry rehashing of what happened.
Let’s just say that Malzahn wanted to strike when the iron was hot and when his stock was at its peak. Let’s just say that the mad scientist wanted to prove that his offense could work at the very highest level of football. Let’s just say the Cleveland Browns did what they needed to do to convince Malzahn to become their Kelly.
What would have happened next… for both Malzahn and Auburn?
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