Gus Malzahn? The first-year Auburn coach led college football’s biggest turnaround, getting Auburn to the last Bowl Championship Series final and racking up coach-of-the-year awards and a raise.
Nick Saban? Hey, he swung a $2-million-a-year raise despite an Iron Bowl loss, complete with questionable coaching decisions, and lost Alabama dreams of a BCS three-peat.
Bill Clark? The first-year Jacksonville State coach delivered big-time firsts in JSU’s post-Division II era, including playoff victories and double-digit wins.
And if we pick Clark, don’t we have to mention Warren Koegel, the athletics director who fired long-time JSU coach Jack Crowe and hired Clark?
They’re all deserving, but a year of turnarounds and miracles should net “Biggest Winner” for an athletics director who was the biggest loser to fans of his own school six months ago. And by “biggest loser,” we mean heckler-at-the-airport biggest loser.
Jay Jacobs exited 2013 with a personal turnaround to match the one achieved by the football coach he hired in December of 2012, but it’s not a mere matter of Malzahn’s accomplishments rehabilitating his athletics director. Jacobs did work toward his own resurgence with promising hires and full-throated, fact-loaded defenses of Auburn against negative national media reports.
So it would be “un-American” for anyone else to get Big 3 “Biggest Winner” of 2013.
Back things up six months, and we see Jacobs firing another one of his hires, former Auburn baseball coach John Pawlowski. Jacobs also fired Tina Deese, the only head coach in Auburn’s 17-year softball history.
That came seven months after Jacobs fired his choice for football coach. Gene Chizik had just presided over Auburn’s worst season in 60 years.
In between firings, some Auburn fans were bewildered that Jacobs didn’t fire Tony Barbee, his men’s basketball coach. This after Auburn won just three SEC games in a program-worst, 23-loss season.
Then again, firing Barbee then would have meant a $3 million buyout atop the $11.09 million it took to buy out Chizik and staff.
Such was Auburn’s spring of discontent, a time when the school’s highest-profile sports teams were losing with Jacobs’ hires. How bad was it? Jacobs would announce school president Jay Gogue’s plan to form a committee to review all aspects of the athletics department, and Auburn fans were ready to roll Jacobs with unused toilet paper.
But Auburn fans would love to do the same to media, and therein came a chance for Jacobs to win back his crowd.
He responded sharply and effectively to wide-ranging allegations in spring reports from ESPN.com and Roopstigo.com. After Auburn’s 19-day review, he lashed back with a 1,000-word letter and fact-filled, official comment on 11 different allegations.
Jacobs’ response poked holes in the allegations and poked the Auburn base on its collective shoulder.
“I’m tired of it,” he said in a video explaining the response. “I’m tired of these attacks on Auburn, and when people attack Auburn, I’m going to fight for Auburn as strongly as I possibly can.
“If we make a mistake, we’re going to admit it. But when people say things that aren’t true, we’re going to set the record straight.”
That was in late April.
Since then, Jacobs made highly regarded hires, luring Oklahoma’s Sunny Golloway to coach Auburn’s baseball team and Arizona State’s Clint Myers to coach the softball team.
That was before football season and the amazing turnaround for the team that matters most to Auburn fans.
Jacobs’ man took a team that suffered through a 3-9 season (0-8 SEC) in 2012 and turned it into a national-title contender. The 12-1 Tigers beat rivals Georgia and Alabama in games with dramatic endings, beat Missouri handily in the SEC championship and will play Florida State for the BCS title a week from Monday.
The week of the SEC Championship Game saw Jacobs poke Auburn fans on the shoulder again. He proclaimed to ESPN that it would be “un-American” for a one-loss SEC champ not to be selected for the BCS final.
The night before the SEC Championship Game, Auburn announced agreement with Malzahn on a new, six-year deal that would start him at $3.85 million a year with guaranteed raises of $250,000 a year.
It’s all in a year’s work for Jacobs, who will begin 2014 by smelling the roses in Pasadena, Calif. How fitting, because he exited 2013 smelling like a rose.
Sports columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576, firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jmedley_star.