Asked about Razorbacks' interest, Malzahn says he's 'focused' on SEC title game

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Saturday, December 2, 2017
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn speaks during an NCAA college football news conference for the Southeastern Conference championship game against Georgia in Atlanta, Friday, Dec. 1, 2017. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Photo by Associated Press
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn speaks during an NCAA college football news conference for the Southeastern Conference championship game against Georgia in Atlanta, Friday, Dec. 1, 2017. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Auburn football Coach Gus Malzahn cannot escape the idea that the Arkansas Razorbacks want to bring him back to his old stomping grounds.

Not even on the eve of the SEC Championship Game.

Malzahn was asked at Friday's SEC Championship Game news conference about the Razorbacks' interest in him and whether his representatives have presented terms for a contract extension to Auburn President Steven Leath.

Malzahn's response was brief.

"I'm focused on this game," he said, sitting near UA associate athletic director for public relations Kevin Trainor, the conference moderator. "This is the SEC championship, and I'm the head coach of Auburn."

No. 2 Auburn (10-2) takes on No. 6 Georgia (11-1) today at 3 p.m. at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

The Fort Smith native remains the top target for the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, which fired Coach Bret Bielema on Nov. 24 after a 4-8 season. Sources with knowledge of the situation say Arkansas is prepared to make a substantial offer to Malzahn, but Auburn is reportedly in position to provide a raise and extension to his current deal, which lasts through Dec. 31, 2020.

Malzahn currently is paid $4.725 million per year, according to the USA Today database, a figure that ranks No. 11 in the country.

USA Today oddsmaker Danny Sheridan, who is based in Mobile, Ala., predicted Malzahn would take the Arkansas job if the Tigers lose to Georgia today during an appearance on Sports Talk with Bo Mattingly on Thursday. Former Auburn offensive lineman and SEC analyst Cole Cubelic made a similar prediction, saying on the show, "I think if they lose he's gone, because that's just an easy transition to say 'Hey, I'm getting on a plane Sunday morning and I'm going over to Arkansas. Things don't feel stable at Auburn, even though we're having success on the field.' "

Auburn, like Arkansas, is seeking a new athletic director after Jay Jacobs announced he would step down by June 1, or earlier if his successor is named. Auburn announced on Nov. 20 a six-member advisory committee would assist Leath in seeking a new athletic director, along with Parker Executive Search of Atlanta.

UA Chancellor Joe Steinmetz is vetting and interviewing AD candidates for the Razorbacks. Tulsa Athletic Director Derrick Gragg, who is considered a leading candidate, will interview Sunday, the Tulsa World reported Friday, citing an unnamed source.

Malzahn, 52, has led Auburn to a 45-20 record entering today's title game, his second in five years with the Tigers. A legendary high school coach in Arkansas, Malzahn landed his first college job as offensive coordinator at Arkansas in 2006 -- a tumultuous season for the Razorbacks, who won 10 consecutive games to claim the SEC West title before losing to Florida in the SEC Championship Game.

Malzahn left after the season to become assistant head coach and offensive coordinator at Tulsa, a job he held for two years before taking over as offensive coordinator at Auburn for a three-year term that included winning the 2010 BCS national championship.

After posting a 9-3 record in his only season as head coach at Arkansas State University in 2012, Malzahn was hired to replace Gene Chizik at Auburn.

Industry sources noted Malzahn's frustration with the week-to-week hot seat mentality he has dealt with at Auburn during the past couple of years, and particularly this season after the Tigers' 27-23 loss at LSU on Oct. 14 after Auburn led 20-0 in the second quarter.

There was speculation at the time claiming Malzahn likely was to be fired if the Tigers didn't beat Georgia and Alabama in late-season games. Auburn defeated No. 1 Georgia and No. 1 Alabama in the span of three games and rose to No. 2 in the College Football Playoff rankings after handling the Crimson Tide 26-14 last week in Auburn, Ala.

In other Arkansas coaching news, ESPN.com, citing a source familiar with the situation, reported Friday the buyout for Bielema is expected to be $11.8 million. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported last Saturday that a source close to the program said the buyout would be between $11 million and $12 million.

ESPN.com reported that some members of the UA board of trustees tried to argue Bielema was owed between $5 million and $6 million, and Bielema's attorney wanted $15.4 million.

The Democrat-Gazette reported in October the buyout would be around $5.9 million if Bielema was terminated between the end of the regular season and Dec. 1, based on language written in his original contract and an amendment agreed upon in early 2015.

However, interim athletic director Julie Cromer Peoples said Bielema had entered into a personal services agreement with the Razorback Foundation that became the controlling document regarding the financial terms related to his firing for convenience.

Bielema's attorney Neil Cornrich did not return a phone message from the Democrat-Gazette on Friday.

The Democrat-Gazette -- arguing the Razorback Foundation is subject to Arkansas Freedom of Information laws because it performs tasks for a public entity, such as paying for the search firm DHR International to assist the UA athletic department in the search for a football coach -- has sent public records requests to the UA and the Razorback Foundation asking for the buyout documents.

Neither the UA nor the Razorback Foundation have provided those documents. Scott Varady, executive director and general counsel for the foundation, in denying the newspaper's requests, wrote the foundation was not a public entity and the Democrat-Gazette's "FOIA requests are invalid as a matter of law."

The Razorbacks are the last SEC West team with a head football coaching vacancy entering the weekend.

On Friday, Texas A&M landed Florida State Coach Jimbo Fisher for a reported $75 million deal over 10 years to replace Kevin Sumlin.

Earlier in the week, Ole Miss conferred its permanent head coaching job on interim Coach Matt Luke, who presided over the Rebels' 6-6 season after Hugh Freeze's firing in July.

Mississippi State quickly hired Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, 44, on Wednesday, three days after nine-year head Coach Dan Mullen departed to accept the same job at Florida.

Sports on 12/02/2017

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