Coaching is a cannibalizing business.
In the back of your head is the knowledge that every win, every championship, every piece of success comes by stepping on the back of your adversary. It’s that or get stepped on yourself, for the climb, not unlike the test pilot’s pyramid in Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff,” has room for fewer and fewer survivors the higher you go.
When Les Miles and Gus Malzahn shake hands after Saturday night’s LSU-Auburn game, it may be with the thought in the back of their heads that they may never do this again. Not at these schools, anyway. Because they will have just played in what Tiger Rag editor Cody Worsham called earlier this week “The Buyout Bowl.”
There’s no stated objective, no physical prize to wrap their hands around — just survive and advance, step up or be stepped on. Nothing's going to happen to either coach in the immediate future. But there is the palpable sense, as real as the blade of Jordan-Hare Stadium grass that Miles will slide between his teeth, that the winner is going to be on a little more solid ground, while the loser is going to feel like a sand dune slammed by waves from an incoming storm, being eaten away bit by bit.
“The coach that wins this game can continue to build their résumé as to why they should go on,” former LSU All-American and SEC Network analyst Booger McFarland said Tuesday on the “Culotta & The Prince” show on WNXX-FM, 104.5. “The coach that loses this game will spend the rest of the season proving why he should keep his job. The team that loses this game is going to be in trouble, and it’s going to be on their coach.”
Hey, it’s still September and there’s a long, long way to go. Plenty of time for either coach and either team to, as the popular saying goes, “change the narrative.” But lose this game, and the knowledge will be that with two-thirds of the schedule to play — with both LSU's and Auburn’s schedule including November tests with Alabama, among others — there may not be enough games left to win to keep going.
“This is what I call a ‘quality of life’ game,” said Tony Barnhart, also an analyst for the SEC Network and columnist for GridironNow.com. “The winner’s quality of life is going to be better for a week, and the loser’s is going to be worse for a week. I don’t see this being a game where the loser is in imminent danger. But on a scale of job security, it’s much better to win than to lose.”
So, to borrow that line from “Caddyshack” when Judge Smails is lining up that bet-heavy putt late in the match, “Oh, Billy, Billy, Billy. This is a biggie.”
Last week, ESPN said Miles, who survived ejection from his hot seat in November thanks in part to some political machinations, still owns the hottest seat in college football. Malzahn can’t be far behind.
Malzahn has become the most scrutinized Gus since the world asked whether astronaut Gus Grissom blew the hatch on his sinking Mercury spacecraft in 1961. Malzahn came within 13 seconds of a national championship in his first season in 2013, finally running out of luck after the “Prayer at Jordan-Hare” against Georgia and the “Kick Six” against Alabama propelled the Tigers to the last BCS title game against Florida State. Since that 12-2 season, Malzahn has gone a tepid 16-13 overall, just 7-12 in his past 19 FBS games and 3-12 in his past 15 SEC games.
That’s not going to keep you employed at Vanderbilt anymore, much less Auburn.
For Miles, the problem is more insidious. He’s winning at a 78 percent clip, but not against Alabama (five straight losses), hasn’t won the SEC West since 2011 and though last week’s Mississippi State game showed a renewed embrace of the passing game, his longtime preference for old-fashioned offensive philosophy has worn on a title-hungry fan base.
Still, how can this be, you might ask, with all the success these men have had? Miles won a national title and played for another at LSU. Malzahn's fingers brushed against the last BCS crystal ball — before FSU’s Jimbo Fisher snatched it away — and he is recognized as a zen master of the read option offense. So what gives?
Malzahn is simply not winning enough, and if he loses to LSU, he’ll be 1-3 to start the year, with all three losses at home to Top 25 teams Clemson, Texas A&M and LSU. For Miles, his Tigers (2-1, 1-0) still on track to keep his streak of 10 wins a year intact, it’s something else.
Barnhart calls it “coaching fatigue.”
“Coaching fatigue is a real thing,” he said. “(Former Texas Tech coach) Spike Dykes said, no matter where you are, you lose 10 percent of your support every year. You can see where that puts you after 10 years.”
Saban, the thorn in Miles' and Malzahn’s sides, seems to be immune.
“But if Nick lost three games this year like he did in 2010, then it would be ‘Oh, he’s 64 and the game has passed him by,’ ” Barnhart said.
The cannibals are just a loss or two away for everyone.