Auburn has the trickiest coaching vacancy to fill, maybe the trickiest college football vacancy of my lifetime. There's not much to offer Auburn in the way of advice, other than this:
Any candidate willing to take this job should be crossed off the list. Because he must be a moron.
And I say that, Auburn people, with affection. I'm not anti-Auburn, not now and not even in 2010, when being anti-Auburn was all the rage. That was a magical season on the Plains, and all of Auburn -- Newton, the school, the fans -- deserved better than it got from the bloodthirsty media.
|More on coaching changes|
|More college football coverage|
That said ...
Hiring a football coach now? Now? This could be the most difficult hire I've ever seen, and it has nothing to do with the NCAA investigation into alleged recruiting violations. That won't scare away any candidate worth a damn, because Auburn is a great football program with tradition and facilities and fans, and a job like this doesn't come open very often. When it does, a coach jumps at it and figures he's good enough -- and this job is good enough -- to overcome whatever the NCAA administers.
Nor does the difficulty of this coaching search relate to the openings elsewhere in college football, the South, even the SEC. That Tennessee job is no joke. Neither is the one at Arkansas. North Carolina State and California also are attractive positions. But none has the cache of Auburn, a school that has won two national titles and three Heisman trophies and in time will win more of each. Football is too important at Auburn. The facilities, the support, the salary -- they'll always be right.
But the timing? It's all wrong.
It's the worst timing possible, actually. Maybe the worst timing in the history of college football. Certainly it's the worst timing in my lifetime, as I rack my brain -- and the Internet -- for similar examples and come up empty.
This is Nick Saban's fault, of course. He has that thing rolling at Alabama. Two national titles in three years, with a shot at a third title in four years? That's absurd. And that's the challenge awaiting whomever replaces Gene Chizik, which is why this hire will be so hard to get right.
Not that Chizik should have been retained. Nice as he is, Chizik had to go. The fall from the perfection of 2010 to the abomination of 2012 was swift, with no reason to believe the future would be better. Chizik didn't win at Iowa State, then didn't win at Auburn without Cam Newton. Maybe he's just not that good, although that's hard to say because, again, the Nick Saban factor.
Saban is that good. No way to compare one college football coach to another, not at the level we're talking about here, but Saban has to be among the greatest ever -- a list that includes Bear Bryant, Barry Switzer, Tom Osborne, Jimmy Johnson, Bobby Bowden, Pete Carroll and (yes) Urban Meyer.
Taking a job opposite Saban? That's career suicide. In six years at Alabama he has run off two coaches at Auburn (Tommy Tuberville resigned, or something, in 2008) and helped run off three at Tennessee. Saban could even be the reason Meyer left Florida. That's not a sure thing -- who knows what Meyer was thinking in 2009, and then 2010? -- but it has to be considered. Sharing a conference with Nick Saban is like sharing a steak with a lion. Only one of you wins that battle. And it's not you.
Now imagine sharing a state with Saban -- and not just any state, but this one. A state with no NFL team, no NBA team, no MLB team. No real passion for college basketball, and no other BCS school, either. Just Alabama and Auburn. Just you two. Staring at each other from 160 miles away, fans of both schools expecting to beat the other. Beating the other means competing for SEC and national titles, but that's just an added benefit. The most important thing in the state, if you're an Alabama fan, is to beat Auburn. And if you're an Auburn fan, it's beating Alabama.
But how are you going to do that? Saban recruits like John Calipari at Kentucky -- looking at the menu and picking whatever he wants. At running back alone, Saban has gone from Heisman winner Mark Ingram to No. 3 overall NFL draft pick Trent Richardson to junior Eddie Lacy (1,001 yards this season) and freshman T.J. Yeldon (847 yards). And for next season, Alabama has gotten a commitment from the most prolific rusher in U.S. high school history, Derrick Henry.
It's terrifying what's going on at Alabama, and Auburn has never been in this hiring position -- not even when Bear Bryant was doing something similar in Tuscaloosa.
See, Auburn already had legendary coach Shug Jordan when Alabama hired Bear in 1958, and Jordan stayed until 1975. Auburn promoted offensive coordinator Doug Barfield to head coach, but he couldn't survive Bear. Pat Dye was hired in 1981, but by then Bear Bryant was 68 years old and fading. He retired the next year.
Auburn has embarked on a national search for a coach to compete with Nick Saban, the new Bear -- and he's not fading. He's holding steady at an elite level, and at age 61 he's not going anywhere. He already tried the NFL and didn't like it. Odds are he'll retire from coaching when he retires from Alabama, and it's hard to imagine him retiring any time soon.
This is the buzz saw awaiting the next Auburn coach. Les Miles has survived and even thrived at LSU, but he's merely sharing the SEC West with Saban -- not the same state. Regardless, bully for Les Miles. Whatever he's earning, he should walk into his boss' office and say, "Double it."
LSU would have to give it to him, because the alternative is even scarier: Doing what Auburn is doing right now. Trying to find a coach smart enough to compete with Nick Saban -- without finding a coach dumb enough to think he actually can.