After the departure of Gus Malzahn, fans were shocked when Auburn hired Bryan Harsin as their new head football coach after an 0-8 season. He is a veteran coach with more than 20 years experience at Boise State, Arkansas State and Oklahoma State so he should be able to turn around this struggling program in what will likely be his final collegiate job.
After a week of speculation about Bryan Harsin’s future at Auburn and an internal investigation into his conduct of the football team, Harsin is still the Tigers’ head coach.
Harsin will remain for his second season as head coach, the school said on Friday.
In a statement, departing president Jay Gogue stated, “My most recent talks with Coach Harsin have me as persuaded as ever in his dedication to our student-athletes’ on- and off-field success and his vision for our program.” “We’re equally dedicated to providing him with the resources he’ll need to accomplish that objective.”
On the field, Harsin’s stint began promisingly, with the squad winning six of his first eight games last season until the wheels fell off. Auburn finished a dismal 6-7, with recruitment falling short of expectations and a host of players and coaches leaving the team.
Harsin claimed he went on vacation last week without being told his career was in risk. He rapidly learned that this was not the case, since the institution was investigating the reasons for the departure of players and coaches.
Harsin insisted last week that he had no intentions to quit Auburn and that he intended to stay on as head coach. Now he has received his desire.
Chris Low, Mark Schlabach, Pete Thamel, and Alex Scarborough of ESPN discuss how we get here and what’s next.
Then followed the wave of transfers, which totaled 18 players, and defensive coordinator Derek Mason’s decision to resign. Mason finally accepted a $400,000 wage reduction to attend Oklahoma State University.
Austin Davis, Harsin’s choice to succeed Bobo, unexpectedly resigned for personal reasons two days before the Feb. 2 signing deadline.
Anger that had been simmering behind the scenes erupted into the open last Friday, when various rumors appeared suggesting Harsin’s career was in jeopardy.
According to ESPN, administration officials conducted interviews with several of the personnel who departed the program, including executive vice president and chief operations officer Lt. Gen. Ron Burgess. According to reports, the investigation was sparked by the program’s general instability and Harsin’s handling of players and assistant coaches.
“Coach Harsin has the proper attitude for a winner but has a bad perspective as a person,” Lee Hunter, who moved from Auburn to UCF this offseason, said on Instagram. “The reason I decided to leave auburn because we were treated like we weren’t good enough and like dogs.” The article was well-received by more than a dozen players on Auburn’s 2021 roster.
Harsin was defended by several current players. “We didn’t need a best buddy, we needed a coach,” linebacker Chandler Wooten tweeted.
“Any assault on my character is bulls—-,” Harsin remarked to ESPN. “I’m not intending on moving anywhere,” Harsin, who was on vacation at the time, asserted, “I’m the proper guy for the position.”
Harsin returned to Auburn on Wednesday night for what was characterized as a cordial discussion with the people in charge of the school’s football investigation. He arrived to a previously planned meeting with SEC football coaches in Birmingham, Alabama the next morning.
Harsin entered via an unmarked side entry, while the other 12 carriages entered through the front door. He walked away without addressing any of the reporters’ inquiries.
Harsin added in his own statement on Friday, “This has been one of the most difficult weeks of my career, and it has nothing to do with my ability to coach. The personal assaults on me and my family were unjustified and went too far. Their perseverance in the face of adversity has been inspiring, but it was also quite predictable.”
From the start, prominent Auburn alumni and supporters were doubtful that Harsin, who came from Boise State, would be a good fit in the SEC, particularly on the recruiting trail. They were more concerned with his potential to win recruiting contests in the SEC footprint against Alabama’s Nick Saban and Georgia’s Kirby Smart than with his coaching skills.
When Auburn has been at its best, it has always been able to attract a large number of talented athletes from Georgia. According to ESPN’s rankings, the Bulldogs recruited six of the top 15 players in Georgia in the 2022 recruiting class, while the Tigers did not sign any top-15 players. In addition, Auburn only signed five players that were listed among ESPN’s top 300 prospects in the country. Alabama has signed 14 of the top 100 prospects, while Georgia has signed ten of the top 100 prospects.
Harsin’s absence from an event held by the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association in Macon, Georgia earlier this month didn’t help him with his detractors. At the ceremony, which was attended by South Carolina’s Shane Beamer, Tennessee’s Josh Heupel, Florida State’s Mike Norvell, and Smart, among others, state championship-winning high school coaches were recognized.
In 2021, Auburn finished with a 6-7 record. Nelson Chenault is a sports reporter for USA TODAY.
Why was he kept at Auburn?
The athletic department did not make the choice on Harsin’s future, ESPN discovered late this week. Instead, Harsin’s investigation was led by university management outside of the sports department, with the assistance of outside legal counsel.
“We do not make institutional decisions based on social media postings or media headlines,” the university stated in a statement, acknowledging the rising buzz.
According to Gogue, “Our football program has been the subject of a lot of speculations and conjecture. I simply wanted to let you know that we’re working on separating truth from fiction.”
That fact-finding operation, it seems, failed to unearth a criminal violation.
Without a reason to terminate Harsin’s contract, Auburn would have owed him the full $18.3 million on his six-year contract, with $9.15 million due this month and the remainder to be paid out in quarterly installments beginning July 15 of the following year.
Given the large buyout Auburn agreed to when previous coach Gus Malzahn was dismissed a year ago, that would have been a lot to ask. Malzahn was owed $21,450,000, not to mention his staff, which includes offensive and defensive coordinators who were each paid over $1 million per year.
With Gouge stepping down in May to make way for new president Chris Roberts, sources told ESPN that Gouge didn’t want to make another head coaching change (and pay another large buyout) and then have to hire another head coach at this time, especially since a new president would be in place for the following football season.
“And the administration understood that Harsin had nearly become a sympathetic character with the fans, most of whom were weary of the upheaval and instability around the program and a select few money people dictating all the moves,” a source told ESPN.
On Thursday, the SEC announced a $54.6 million yearly allocation per institution, although rewarding numerous former coaches would have been a stretch.
After four years at Auburn, Bo Nix transferred to Oregon. Sportswire Icon
What does Harsin have to do in the long run?
In the next weeks and months, there will be a lot of fence-mending to be done, whether it’s in the locker room or with the administration.
Harsin may have survived Auburn’s investigation of his conduct of the program, but in the court of public opinion, concerns about why 18 players and five coaches have gone in the last six months will continue to be posed. Could more players use the transfer site as a result of the turmoil?
Recruiting in the SEC is challenging enough when there are simply rumors of internal difficulties. Because of the public nature of the situation, Harsin and his team will have an even more uphill struggle in convincing athletes to join the program.
Remember that one of the biggest critiques of Harsin before he was placed under the microscope this week was his poor recruitment. Finishing in the bottom half of the SEC’s recruiting rankings isn’t good enough, and it’s something he’ll have to improve on.
When it comes to the coaching staff, there’s still work to be done, with the position of offensive coordinator still open. It was a possibility a week ago to promote wide receivers coach Eric Kiesau, but Harsin may now feel pressured to go with someone with more SEC ties.
In any event, the recent week has demonstrated an alarming lack of coordination between the head coach, athletic department, and university administration.
Last week, Harsin told ESPN that if Auburn wanted to return to championship form, it needed to make some adjustments. However, sources told ESPN that during negotiations leading up to his retention, he was advised that he, too, needed to make some adjustments, particularly in the way he communicates and interacts with players.
A total of 18 players have transferred from Auburn’s roster following last season. Icon Sportswire/Randy Litzinger photo)
What’s in store for the next season?
Don’t be deceived by the early-season matchups versus Mercer and San Jose State. Harsin and the Tigers will face a schedule that includes five games against Way-Too-Early Top 25 teams, as well as an out-of-conference battle against perennial Big Ten power Penn State, in Year 2.
And who will be Auburn’s quarterback? After transferring to Oregon, the former SEC Freshman of the Year won’t be known as Bo Nix for the first time in four years.
Former LSU quarterback TJ Finley stepped in for Nix late last season and was underwhelming in losses to South Carolina, Alabama and Houston. Zach Calzada transferred from Texas A&M, where he was the starter, but wasn’t exactly lighting up the SEC outside of beating Alabama. Robby Ashford arrived from Oregon, but he hasn’t appeared in a game in the last two seasons, so expectations are tempered at best.
To put it another way, although there are many alternatives beneath center, none of them are certain.
What will he have to work with if one of them does emerge as a playmaker? 18 players, including top receiver Kobe Hudson, have transferred from last year’s team.
On defense, linebacker Zakoby McClain, the team’s top tackler last season, is headed to the NFL, as is cornerback Smoke Monday, who was third on the team in tackles and third in pass breakups.
How will the Tigers go on the road and upset the Crimson Tide, who return Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Bryce Young and the nation’s top defensive player, linebacker Will Anderson Jr., if they couldn’t maintain a lead and beat Alabama at home last season?
Given the schedule and roster composition, a rapid turnaround after going 6-7 seems unlikely. And if a.500 record wasn’t enough to jeopardize Harsin’s job this time, we may be right back here next season.
The only thing that will remain constant between now and then is his buyout.
Auburn would still owe Harsin roughly $15 million if he were dismissed without reason after the 2022 season.