He was so ass and everyone knew it. Auburn’s head football coach Bryan Harsin was fired about nine months too late on Monday morning, the finale to a terrible second season coaching the jewel of The Plains. The Tigers’ biggest accomplishment in 2022 was surviving an average Missouri team that should’ve beaten them, if their All-American kicker didn’t have an extremely rare 26-yard miss and a sure-handed running back didn’t cough up the football crossing the goal line in overtime. Quite the confidence builder, which turned out to be Harsin’s final win at Auburn.
Being the other Power Five Conference team in Alabama alongside the Crimson Tide is the most consistently-exposed spot in college football. You’re a great program by any stretch of the imagination in a football-crazy part of America. The Tigers won a national championship more recently than 124 other FBS teams. Standards are higher because no one will hesitate to kick you out if you can’t fit in. AU paid Gus Malzahn $21.5 million to go away at the end of 2020, bringing in Harsin. And 22 months later, it owes Malzahn’s replacement, who wasn’t even mentioned by name in the press release announcing his firing, $15.3 million. Let’s not pretend like that’s a small amount of money, but let’s also not believe Auburn’s boosters can’t willingly pay that with ease. Because football conquers all, and how dare the Earth allow the Tigers to be anything less than great?
Coincidentally, Auburn hired John Cohen to be its new athletic director within hours of dismissing Harsin. His tenure at AU will be tied with whoever the new head coach is for eternity. If the next football coach fails as horribly as Harsin, Cohen should be kicked to the curb too. The most important decision an athletic director makes is Cohen’s first decision — a rare occurrence, but one that will provide Auburn with immediate feedback on the type of department Cohen wants to run. And he’s got one choice: Make a big splash. Poaching a great coach from the Group of Five is out of the question. What exactly has that done to heighten spirits at other Southeastern Conference schools? Florida is average with Billy Napier. Missouri hasn’t done anything special with Eli Drinkwitz. Hiring a coordinator from another big school is a huge no-no. Vanderbilt sucks again with Clark Lea. South Carolina is close but hasn’t broken through with Shane Beamer. Still, Auburn has more leverage to make a Brian Kelly-esque hire than most give it credit for.
There are not many available coaches that fit the mold here. Hot boards with more than seven candidates are ridiculous. To me, I’ll take one of the following three coaches being hired at Auburn against the rest of the field: Deion Sanders, Lane Kiffin, or Mike Gundy. One complete outsider with the most unique potential in the sport, the easy-to-spot candidate that can quickly lead to the most success, and Mike Gundy.
In all seriousness, Gundy is the longest-tenured coach in the Big 12 by a mile. He took the helm at Oklahoma State in 2005. Every other conference school has hired at least one new football coach since 2016. He’s 155-71 in Stillwater, won 11 bowl games and he’s an alumnus making $7.5 million annually. Gundy has also been the center of controversy, like in 2020 when he was pictured wearing a One America News (OAN) shirt. The network’s election denialism and conspiracy baiting are disgustingly false. Being tone-deaf isn’t a fireable offense, and winning football cures all in PowerFiveLand. Gundy would be an idiot not to listen to an aggressive offer from Auburn. With Texas and Oklahoma jumping to the SEC, the Big 12’s path to a national championship becomes so narrow, Simone Biles would have trouble with that balancing act.
Cohen comes to Auburn after holding the same position at Mississippi State. Mike Leach won’t be considered when he’s not even the best FBS coach in his state. Kiffin is and he’s halfway done his third season at Ole Miss. He’s never stayed at any gig for more than four seasons, meaning he’s likely bolting from Oxford this offseason or next. Kiffin’s stay with the Rebels proves he can win in the SEC with less than he’ll have at Auburn. He’s got recruiting relationships in familiar avenues and makes a tiny bit less than Gundy at $7.25 million in 2022. Kiffin signed a contract extension in the offseason until 2025, but course-correcting happens all the time. The biggest stumbling block for Auburn will be his buyout, which is oddly unclear. It’s got to be north of $20 million. But how much is winning worth on The Plains?
Now we get to the main event and talk about Prime Time. He’s incredibly inexperienced in coaching college football compared to the other two, only starting at FCS-level Jackson State in 2020. Sanders has punched above his weight for all of his tenure in Mississippi. Remember how I said Kiffin is the best FBS coach in the state? It’s because I’m not sure the overall best college coach isn’t Deion. Remember how he flipped No. 1 overall recruit, Travis Hunter, away from his alma mater to play in the FCS? Blame NIL all you want. Sanders still convinced the young man to trade away the ACC for an FCS school. That was inconceivable two years ago. Someone’s going to bite and hire him to the Power-Five level in the next few years. He’s too enticing to not hire and he’s not an HBCU loyalist like Dawson Odums. Might as well coerce Coach Prime, as he likes to be called, while he could coerce Hunter and his son Shedeur Sanders, last year’s Jerry Rice Award winner, to come with him to the SEC.
This is a can’t-miss hire for Cohen. Starting at Auburn with a shrug would be worse than outrage. He needs to awaken the Tigers’ fan base with excitement. It’s there, ready to burst like Mount Vesuvius. It won’t be hard to do better than Harsin, who was out of his league coaching at Auburn as morale and recruiting went in the trash. The Plains is a treasure unmatched by most locales in college football, and it’s recognized as such by its residents. Hire Sanders, Kiffin, or Gundy and I think the chances of restoring the glory days of Auburn football skyrocket.
Your move, Mr. Cohen.