For better or for worse, Auburn is saving themselves from throwing $18 million down the drain (for now), announcing Friday that Bryan Harsin will remain the Tigers’ head football coach into the 2022 season. Harsin has had quite the week, one that started out by trending on Twitter for having an affair with an assistant — a rumor that appeared out of thin air and appears to be both baseless and irrelevant to the drama that would continue to follow him over the next several days. His contract buyout would have added up to 70 percent of his contract, which runs through 2026, and would have cost Auburn yet another pretty penny just over a year after buying out Gus Malzahn’s contract.
After losing 19 players in a transfer portal exodus including QB Bo Nix, as well as his offensive and defensive coordinators (stepping down and a lateral move with a pay cut, respectively), Harsin’s future at Auburn was under a hard line of questioning this week. The head coach, who finished his first year at 6-7, was the talk of the town for the college football community this week (I guess the offseason boredom is really getting to us).
To require an announcement that a contracted coach is staying is not the most common occurrence, to put it lightly, but it needed to be explicitly clarified after the rumors and reports surrounding the situation took off into orbit this week. Highlights included Auburn launching an investigation into Harsin while he was on vacation, seemingly to look for a reason to fire him for cause and avoid another multimillion dollar payout, Auburn then implementing a new cooperation policy regarding investigations of university employees midway through the week while Harsin was still in Mexico, and Harsin needing to sneak into the SEC coaches meeting Thursday through a backdoor as rumors ran rampant that he would be fired later that day.
Following a Montgomery Advertiser article that called Harsin’s Auburn program “toxic” and “dysfunctional” based on anonymous player testimony, some current and former players took to social media to defend him fiercely, while others expressed their disappointment and frustration with his coaching style. The overall read from the various athletes’ statements on social media was that Harsin is a hard-nosed, hardass kind of coach who lacked the important ability to empathize with his players, even if he was able to motivate and challenge them.
It’s a delicate balance — some didn’t feel that Harsin cared about them at all, though as four-year Tiger Smoke Monday said, he’s “a hell of a coach that wants to win,” but that it’s “just the people stuff” getting in his way. And in a sport like college football, where recruiting is king and you’re developing young men likely away from their homes for the first time in their lives, the mentorship, relationship building, and “people stuff” are invaluable tools.
Yet here we are, as university president Jay Gogue released a letter Friday, reading, in part:
“Specific to Coach Harsin, he was completely cooperative throughout this inquiry and is equally eager to consider and address any identified issues head-on. My most recent conversations with Coach Harsin have me as convinced as ever in his commitment to our student-athletes’ on- and off-field success and his vision for our program… Unfortunately, social media fueled wild speculation, substantial misinformation and unfair attacks on good Auburn people. A feeding frenzy resulted that was beyond anyone’s control… I know the past week has been an incredibly trying time for Coach Harsin, his family and many others. Personal and intentional attacks have been publicly levied, almost all of them anonymous, without regard for their resulting, real-world ramifications. Auburn never has — and I hope never will — legitimize reckless rumors or innuendo with public comment. While Coach Harsin understands some level of public criticism comes with the job, what he and his family have endured this past week was beyond the pale.”
So it seems like the school is firmly standing behind him, which, after this week, is the least they can do. The fire started inside the house — it was stoked by outsiders, sure, but it was given freely to the public by the people at Auburn. As multiple people have pointed out, Harsin enters his next season and any further future at Auburn at the largest disadvantage you could possibly have as a coach — “his knees have been cut out from under him,” as Richard Johnson put it.
Recruits will distrust him because of the public testimonies of disgruntled players, he’ll be forced to win lots and win fast rather than having time to build, and he’ll be under heavy scrutiny from Auburn and the media, as this incident will be brought up every time the Tigers play. He’s already competing with Nick Saban for recruits and he’s playing in the SEC — and this week has made it all but impossible to succeed at his job. His days at Auburn are no doubt numbered after this incident, no matter the amount of truth behind it.
The optics are terrible, the expectations are closing in, the recruits aren’t coming, and after giving Malzahn over $21 million to get lost, Auburn is likely going to find itself on yet another coaching search sooner rather than later, $18 million poorer and no closer to winning a national championship.