Thursday, September 1, 2011

Kirby Smart, or Gus Malzahn?

image A caller on WNSP 105.5’s Sports Drive yesterday afternoon had an interesting question for show hosts Pat Greenwood and Randy Kennedy. The basis for the question was the assumption that the Georgia Bulldogs have a subpar season (again) in 2011, leading to the departure of Mark Richt and a coveted opening at one of the big schools of the SEC.

It’s just as likely that Ole Miss lays an egg in 2011 and the Right Reverend Houston Nutt is shown the door. I didn’t hear whether Greenwood and Kennedy addressed a possible opening at Ole Miss, but even before these two teams face stiff nonconference opponents—BYU visits Oxford and Boise State travels to Atlanta—I see the odds at better than even that at least one of them will be in the market for a new head coach about four months from now.

The question: If you’re an SEC school looking for a head coach, do you hire an up-and-coming assistant and if so, which of the two most talked about assistants in the SEC do you go after: Alabama’s Kirby Smart, or Auburn’s Gus Malzahn?

For me, the answer is Gus Malzahn and it’s not even close.

Bulldog fans would likely stage a partial revolt if Athletics Director Greg McGarity tapped Malzahn over Smart, a Georgia alumnus and Broyles Award winning assistant coach. But if you’re looking to add excitement and pizzazz to what’s been a moribund football program over the last several seasons, Malzahn is the no-brainer.

Bama’s Kirby Smart is ready to be a head coach, too. His career includes stops at Georgia, Valdosta State, Florida State, LSU, the Miami Dolphins and Alabama. The LSU, Dolphins and Bama stints have all been with Nick Saban, arguably the best head coach in college football today. Saban has disciples coaching at Florida, Florida State and Tennessee in the SEC and Michigan State in the Big Ten. Clearly, Smart’s resume is right and he’ll be a solid head coach wherever he decides to plant his flag. But he’ll be a first-timer in the corner office.

Malzahn has been a head coach, and while it was at the high school level, he transformed programs from also-rans to offensive powerhouses. He knows how to run an organization. He’s won everywhere he’s been when he’s allowed free rein over the team’s offense. He took a woefully thin, talent-starved 5-7 2008 Auburn team and transformed it into one of the most productive attacks in the SEC. In 2009, Auburn won eight games and had undefeated Alabama on the ropes until the fourth quarter in the Iron Bowl. Few people can make chicken salad out of chicken scat like Malzahn did that year. And 14-0 last year wasn’t bad either, was it?

Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated called Malzahn “one of the sport's most innovative offensive minds, not just in the college ranks, but in all of football.” Mandel wrote that line in October 2009, getting on the Malzie bandwagon before it was trendy.

Both Malzahn and Smart are recruiting machines. Both are disciplined, experienced coaches who have won at the highest level in college football. Smart’s implementation of the Saban school of defense is crisp, physical and absolutely ferocious. But Malzahn’s offense is his offense.

Auburn faces an absolutely brutal schedule in 2011. They have away games at Clemson, South Carolina, Arkansas, LSU and Georgia. They will likely be underdogs in every one of them, and are likely underdogs hosting both Florida and Alabama. They have a wealth of young talent but a dearth of experience and senior leadership. If they can fashion an eight- or nine-win season out of that slate, it will be because Malzahn worked his magic on the offensive side of the ball and his stock will be sky high.

Smart would be a good choice for almost any program. But if Gus Malzahn is available and I’m shopping for a coach, I’m going with the wizard.

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