Most Power Five Conference college football programs take as much of a deep breath as they can after the traditional National Signing Day, taking place the first Wednesday of every February. Teams’ rosters are as set as possible in the transfer-portal era of the sport after inking the final parts of your yearly recruiting class. That’s not the case at Auburn.
The period to take a little siesta before spring football ramps up over the next few weeks has been met with an inferno of uncertainty surrounding the job security and long-term outlook for second-year head football coach Bryan Harsin. The former Boise State head coach is only in month No. 15 leading the Tigers on The Plains, yet there’s uncanny turmoil taking place under his watch. Several reports have surfaced over the past 72 hours detailing his divisive tenure at Auburn. One unnamed source told The Montgomery Advertiser that the program was “toxic” and “dysfunctional.”
Many football players attached to the program over the past year have spoken out on both sides of the argument.
The pro-Harsin crowd have pointed out how it’s a process to build a national championship contender in college football and how Auburn’s 6-7 record in 2021 should be the floor for expectations moving forward. They believe the messaging from inside the program and need to give the 45-year-old Harsin the proper time to replicate the success of predecessors Gene Chizik and Gus Malzahn. The quickly dwindling patience of Southeastern Conference fans won’t like that. It’s easy to understand regardless of Harsin’s standing that expectations are high in that state of Alabama when it comes to college football and immediate improvements need to be made.
Detractors from Harsin have a few easy data points. Both team coordinators have left the program since the start of the new year. Derek Mason bolted for the same job at Oklahoma State, while newly hired Austin Davis lasted 43 days as offensive coordinator, citing “personal reasons” for stepping down. Auburn has had more than two-dozen players enter the transfer portal since the end of the season, most notably last season’s starting quarterback Bo Nix, son of Tiger legend Patrick Nix, who landed at Oregon.
Smoke Monday, who has an awesome name and played for AU for four years and declared for the NFL Draft a month ago, said on Instagram this week that players were treated “like dogs.” Monday also quipped that Harsin can’t relate to players who came from “nothing,” though Harsin is a “hell of a coach.” Gleaning further into that statement, putting a priority on the gridiron without taking care of the young adults putting their bodies on the line for the pigskin makes the bottom fall out of any program quickly.
Conversely, those standing up for Harsin have been just as vocal. Veteran tight end John Samuel Shenker stood up for his head coach. “Listen and listen carefully: Coach Harsin is my football coach! He is the leader I want to have in my corner,” Shenker posted on social media. “If you have a problem with his discipline, toughness and conviction that he instills in his players then get your entitled, selfish and soft tail (out) this program.” Strong words that show how large a football locker room can be and how tough it is to please everyone. If other SEC programs after a turbulent year were put under the same microscope, similar results could come.
It’s hard to keep a secret in the SEC. If a program has something spectacular, there’s no hesitation to share it with the world. Why do you think programs have revamped their video and public relations approaches over the past decade? If you have something special, make sure it looks sexy on social media. That draws in recruits, fans, and general interest, especially now that name, image, and likeness is a contributing factor in college athletics.
The tight-lipped theory can protrude easiest when something isn’t right. It takes one grape that disagrees with the whole other bunch to leak information. There are enough grapes from the anti-Harsin crowd to make a few glasses of wine, at least. When adversity like this hits a program, one of two things usually follows. This is either the rallying point that brings Auburn back to the SEC championship game, or the past few days will be remembered as the beginning of the end for Harsin at AU.
Go back to SEC Media Days in July. I covered it. Former Harsin assistant at Boise and Arkansas State and current Missouri head coach Eli Drinkwitz spoke on the last day of the preseason get-together hours before Harsin took that stage for the first time himself. Harsin had a 16-minute nauseating opening statement to the general print media in attendance, clearly designed to keep questions from reporters at a minimum, at an event designed for reporters to ask questions. Drinkwitz did give needed insight into what Auburn fans should expect from Harsin.
“He’s got a tremendous plan. The thing about Coach Harsin is he always has a plan for everything he does,” Drinkwitz said. “And you’re going to see that unfold at Auburn.” Drinkwitz’s next sentence was he didn’t want to put unfair expectations onto anyone else and that Auburn’s fan base does that enough by themselves. That’s completely fitting right now. Was there a plan for this kind of strife? Was his plan to rid AU football of everyone that wouldn’t fit his culture? Everyone at Auburn who was in the program before Malzahn’s firing cost the university $21 million was pledged to a different head coach. The bubble being burst led to his interview on ESPN on Thursday night. From the nature of his comments, Harsin appeared to be caught off-guard and offended. Maybe there wasn’t a plan from everyone in the Auburn fandom falling in line, because maybe if he fell too far out of favor, it wouldn’t matter. He wouldn’t be coaching at the school anymore.
There is nothing wrong with attrition in a program. A lot of Auburn’s roster signed up to play for the current Central Florida head coach. Sometimes it’s a matter of a stylistic fit and everyone involved doing what’s best for them. A problem would be an atmosphere that’s productive for a minority of the team. Most high-level college football players can succeed in any environment, anywhere. Doesn’t matter location or personnel. Auburn has more of that talent than most teams in the SEC. It’s got to be hard sharing a state with Nick Saban. And a program they constantly fight in recruiting three hours away just won the national championship.
Straight up, the respect Harsin demands out of this situation hasn’t been earned. Expectations are sky high and the program’s most recent game was a bowl loss in its home state to a Group of Five team. We haven’t heard close to the end of this saga on The Plains. It’ll be something that’s hard to outrun for Harsin. A double-digit win season should cure him of these troubles. But that won’t be the antidote until November at the absolute earliest and that’s a longshot. It may be cliche, but the only thing Harsin can do now is look ahead. Even if he’s made mistakes, year No. 2, should he be given that opportunity, needs to be drastically better.