Is Kirby Smart a great football coach? He certainly has been since quarterback Jake Fromm arrived on campus. Before then? His career record as a head coach was 8-5.
Is Jimbo Fisher a great football coach? He certainly was when Jameis Winston was his quarterback for two years. During those seasons, the Florida State Seminoles were 27-1 overall, won a national championship and narrowly missed out on another. His 96.4 winning percentage with Winston is offset by his 71.8 winning percentage without him.
Is Kevin Sumlin a great football coach? Almost everyone would say no. But the numbers tell a similar story to those of Smart and Fisher. When Sumlin had star quarterback Johnny Manziel, his Texas A&M record was 20-6, a winning percentage of 76.9. Without the mercurial Heisman Trophy winner, Sumlin’s record in College Station was 30-20, a 60 percent clip.
How about Dabo Swinney, who is all the rage in college football these days (and with good reason)? In the four seasons when he had Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence at quarterback his record is 53-5, a winning percentage of 91.4. In seasons without those two stars, his Clemson record is 63-25, for a winning percentage of 71.6.
Lincoln Riley of Oklahoma may or may not be subject to this same phenomenon, but he has yet to have a team that wasn’t quarterbacked by a Heisman Trophy winner. It will be interesting to see how the Sooners do with Jalen Hurts (a very good quarterback) following Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray (two great college quarterbacks).
Ed Orgeron has never had the luxury of a great quarterback, but it’s still shocking to see that his wins per year over eight seasons looks like this: 3, 4, 3, 6, 6, 6, 9, 10. After one more season with Joe Burrow at quarterback maybe we will all look back and realize that the Ohio State transfer was the difference between mediocrity and greatness.
There are many other coaches whose success and failure can be tracked to how good their quarterbacks were.
One outlier is Nick Saban, who has won big with talented Heisman finalists AJ McCarron and Tua Tagovailoa but has also been a major success with less talented players such as Greg McElroy and Blake Sims.
That brings us to Arthur Gustavo Malzahn. Last week, Barton Simmons of 247Sports and CBS Sports made news by proclaiming on the “Cover 3 College Football Podcast” that Auburn’s head man is simply an 8-5 coach, no more, no less. According to Simmons, fans expecting anything different from Malzahn are setting themselves up for a fall.
Here’s a portion of what Simmons said:
“Gus Malzahn just appears to be more comfortable with an athletic quarterback. He’s just kind of an 8-5 coach. His first year, obviously, he went 12-2 with Nick Marshall, 1,000-yard rusher Nick Marshall. Year two with 700-800-yard rusher Nick Marshall, he went 8-5. Then he had a couple of down years, 7-6, 8-5. Then 10-4 with a not super mobile Jarrett Stidham, and then 8-5 with a not very mobile Jarrett Stidham. So, I was about to bring up this ‘watch how different Auburn will be with an athletic quarterback.’ But looking at the record and how the seasons turned out, I feel like Gus Malzahn is just kind of an 8-5 coach.”
Is Simmons’ assessment correct? Maybe Malzahn simply falls into the category of so many other coaches who succeed when they have a great quarterback and struggle when they don’t.
Malzahn first earned national recognition during his time as offensive coordinator at Auburn, when he got plenty of credit for the Tigers’ undefeated season in 2010. Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton led the Tigers to a percent record that season.
As a head coach, Malzahn was 10-3 at Arkansas State with record-setting quarterback Ryan Aplin, then 12-2 in his first season with Marshall. Since then, the Tigers are 41-25 over five seasons. You don’t have to be Isaac Newton to do the math on that record. It’s a fact that Malzahn is an 8-5 coach over the last five years.
But will that trend change in 2019? The answer — as we have learned with Fisher and Smart and Sumlin and Swinney — has everything to do with how well the Auburn quarterback performs.
We don’t yet know if redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood or true freshman Bo Nix will win the job. Nix has all the qualities to be a superstar in the SEC. The question is whether he will be good enough, soon enough to help secure Malzahn’s job at Auburn.
If not, some new coach is going to inherit a very good quarterback at Auburn. If that happens, history tells us that the presence of a strong quarterback will lead to success for that new coach.
Randy Kennedy writes a weekly column for Lagniappe and is co-host of “Sports Drive” every weekday from 3-6 p.m. on WNSP 105.5 FM, the country’s first all-sports FM station. Follow him on Twitter @Kennedy_Randy
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