The future of Auburn coach Bryan Harsin remains in flux, as the school’s outgoing president has indicated it is “moving quickly” to make the “appropriate decision” on Harsin’s future.
Harsin has come under scrutiny by the university amid the exit of 20 players and five assistant coaches. Auburn’s first-year head coach went 6-7 in 2021, including a five-game losing streak to end the season, and he is out of the country on vacation as university officials determine the best course of action.
The looming decision is a rare case of a university questioning a first-year head coach’s tenure by publicly declaring that the school, according to outgoing president Jay Gogue, is “trying to separate fact from fiction” about “rumors and speculation” surrounding the program.
The move puts Auburn in an unusual predicament, even for a school that has built a reputation for unorthodox leadership and emotional decision-making when it comes to the beloved football program.
Harsin told ESPN earlier this week that he was not informed by anyone in athletics or university administration before leaving for vacation that his job could be in jeopardy.
“No, nothing was said to me about any of this,” Harsin said. “I get here (to his vacation locale), and all these rumors are out there and my phone is blowing up. All I can tell you is that nothing has changed with me. We’re working toward getting this program where we all want it to be, and that’s where my focus is going to remain until I’m told otherwise.
“If somebody out there is trying to create a narrative for their own interests, I can’t control that.”
The decision on Harsin’s future is expected to come within days from university leadership, not athletic leadership, sources have told ESPN. When athletic director Allen Greene hired Harsin, the move was viewed as a win for the athletic department fending off board and booster influence. That power dynamic appears to have shifted, similar to what occurred with the firing of Gus Malzahn in December 2020, a decision sources said came from outside the athletic department.
“Auburn is always going through transition in leadership,” said an industry source familiar with the school’s inner-workings. “Therefore there’s no way to ever tell who is in control.”
Another source told ESPN that Harsin grew frustrated after the season when trying to get contract numbers finalized for assistant coaches he wanted to hire and administration officials wouldn’t give him any answers on what he could pay or the structure of those deals.
Harsin even requested to meet with the board of trustees to address the salary pool questions, but Gogue said that wouldn’t be a good idea, a source said.
“(Harsin’s) hands were tied,” the source said. “It’s the head coach’s job to hire assistants and there were no answers from anyone.”
ESPN’s Chris Low, Mark Schlabach and Pete Thamel break down the lingering questions regarding Auburn and what’s next.
What are the three potential options at this point?
1. Fire Harsin and pay an $18.3 million buyout. That would mean the school has committed to nearly $40 million in head-coach buyout money alone over the past 14 months. They’d have to pay him $9.15 million in 30 days and then four more quarterly payments starting July 15, according to his contract. That number is much larger with staff, but it’s too early to determine if Auburn would attempt an interim scenario and keep some of the staff, or blow up the whole thing.
2. Attempt to fire Harsin for cause would almost assuredly be met with a legal counter. It’s unknown what Auburn officials have discovered in speaking with former coaches and players about Harsin, but courts have recently shown that legal challenges can be stiff, as Kansas and UConn have found. Any lawsuit would also expose Auburn’s boosters, board members and leadership to discovery, which could paint an ugly portrait of how the school really works. Nothing that has emerged publicly would rise to the level of being fired for cause. (Auburn also could attempt to negotiate a settlement to oust him, but Harsin’s characterization of attacks on his character to ESPN as “bulls—” give a window to how entrenched he appears to be.)
Multiple sources in and around the Auburn team said that Harsin was a stickler for following NCAA rules in recruiting and that they would be shocked if recruiting violations were any part of an Auburn case to fire him for cause.
Harsin repeatedly warned his coaches “not to cheat” in recruiting.
“He was completely by the book, and in about every meeting we had, talked about how we weren’t going to cheat and didn’t need to cheat to get players at Auburn,” a former staffer told ESPN.
3. Bring Harsin back. Every minute that ticks by, this seems less feasible. With the outgoing president declaring that a decision needs to be made, the school went a long way toward blocking any path to a return. Can recruits commit to a coach who might be heading into 2022 on the firing block? It would be a long and awkward dance attempting to pretend the last 48 hours didn’t happen.
How did things get so bad so quickly?
It was an interesting marriage from the start. Harsin grew up in Boise, Idaho, played at Boise State and spent much of his coaching career there. He was an assistant at Texas and head coach at Arkansas State for one season, but he never spent any time in the SEC.
“It’s hard to bring an outsider into the SEC,” said a longtime SEC assistant coach. “It’s a different landscape. You talk about polar opposites: it’s Boise, Idaho, and Auburn, Alabama. You can’t get any more different.”
Harsin hired two longtime SEC coaches, former Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason and former Georgia and South Carolina assistant Mike Bobo, as his defensive and offensive coordinator, respectively. But he fired Bobo after one season, and Mason left for Oklahoma State.
It’s hard to believe that just over two months ago, the Tigers were a play away from upsetting No. 3 Alabama in the Iron Bowl, which, given the importance the schools place on that rivalry, might have earned Harsin a contract extension. But a 24-22 loss in four overtimes to the Crimson Tide was the fourth of his five straight defeats to finish the season.
The volatility of Harsin’s coaching staff — he has had five coordinators in just 14 months on the job — and the recent mass exodus of players have raised concerns about the foundation of his program.
People familiar with the situation say Harsin has alienated assistant coaches, players and others inside the athletics department. His critics say he didn’t do enough to build relationships with key boosters and donors and didn’t seem to embrace Auburn’s traditions. In May, he skipped 1985 Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson’s charity golf tournament, leaving two assistant coaches to speak in his absence, which peeved several big donors.
“He doesn’t place real value in the history and tradition of Auburn,” a source told ESPN. “If you’re a new coach, especially an outsider, you’d think you’d embrace those things.”
Some of the players who have criticized Harsin on social media said he didn’t do enough to develop relationships with them. Others have defended him. Former linebacker Chandler Wooten, the team’s second-leading tackler last season, wrote on Twitter, “We didn’t need a best friend we needed a coach … that’s what we had.”
Harsin told ESPN earlier this week that any suggestion he had poor relationships with his players or mistreated his players was drummed up by those on the outside trying to hurt the program.
“The people spreading that kind of thing aren’t at Auburn and are trying to use it against us,” Harsin said. “There are always different reasons when players leave. Some players needed to leave because they were complete distractions.”
But players such as former safety Smoke Monday said Harsin hadn’t done enough to get to know him and his family. In an Instagram Live session on Friday, Monday said: “He’s good, he wants to win, but you also need a coach that can understand where you [came] from. I came from nothing. He hasn’t had one single conversation with my mother or my father … as a coach, how can you explain that?”
Former Tigers receiver Kobe Hudson, who transferred to UCF to play for Malzahn, commented on the same Instagram Live event: “He’s a dictator, bro. This is a dictatorship.”
Harsin’s critics said that along with failing to win over the entire locker room, he doesn’t have a good plan for recruiting and he didn’t immerse himself in it this past year, nor did he spend much time in high schools in Alabama and neighboring states. This past week, he skipped an event hosted by the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association in Macon, where state championship-winning high school coaches were honored. Georgia’s Kirby Smart, Tennessee’s Josh Heupel, Florida State’s Mike Norvell and South Carolina’s Shane Beamer were among the head coaches who attended.
“It’s not a good look to the high school coaches,” a Georgia high school coach said. “Auburn isn’t but 2½ hours away.”
Auburn’s recruiting class was ranked No. 18 in the FBS, according to ESPN, but seven SEC teams were ranked ahead of them, including No. 1 Texas A&M, No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia.
“He doesn’t work in recruiting,” a longtime SEC assistant said. “He thinks he’s going to outcoach people. That’s not going to happen in the SEC — those other guys can coach and recruit.”
Can Auburn really keep him?
It seems as if the toothpaste is out of the tube, and much damage has been done to Harsin’s reputation inside and outside the program. He’d appear to be a lame-duck coach heading into only his second season, which would make life difficult for the Tigers on the recruiting trail. While remaining players might rally around him, there have been enough damaging allegations made on social media by former players that top prospects might steer clear.
That’s the dilemma facing Auburn’s administration: Does it bring back Harsin if the influential boosters who are making the big decisions behind closed doors don’t think he’s the long-term solution? Or does it fire him and hope there’s a better coach who would be willing to come to a place that just fired its second coach in about 14 months? Would someone capable of competing with Smart, Alabama’s Nick Saban and Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher take a chance at a school with boosters who have been tearing down coaches since 1998?
“It’s Auburn being Auburn,” one SEC coach said.
Another source said that Auburn hadn’t been truly aligned and united when it comes to football since the late Pat Dye was coach. Dye’s last season was 1992.
And, yet, Auburn has either won a national championship, played for a national championship or played for an SEC championship three different times in the last 12 seasons.
“People talk about Harsin not being a fit at Auburn, and he’s not,” said one source with deep Auburn ties. “But the guy’s only been there for a year. How can you say he’s not going to be able to win football games there? They were trying to get Gus (Malzahn) for four years before they got him, and he had as much success against (Nick) Saban during that time as anybody in the SEC.
“It’s a hard job, but a good job at a place that has shown it can win at a high level. But it ain’t for everybody.”
If Harsin is retained, it likely would take the school acknowledging some measure of accountability in its apparent attempts to scrutinize his actions. That would essentially be admitting to a failed coup, similar to how the push for hiring then-defensive coordinator Kevin Steele flopped last year before Harsin was hired.
The school would probably have to take direct athletic department powers away from boosters. These challenges have lingered for more than a generation at Auburn, and keeping a coach who’s on a five-game losing streak doesn’t seem like the pivot point for the school to suddenly find institutional serenity. Auburn just announced Chris Roberts as Gogue’s replacement on Friday, and a president whose tenure is about 24 hours may not have the bandwidth and dexterity to solve decades-old issues.
“Look at the different factions, how fragmented the place has been,” a longtime Auburn source said. “I look at it all and wonder what coach Dye would think, how a place with so many people who love Auburn could keep screwing it up.”