Why Auburn is bringing back Bryan Harsin, and what else to expect moving forward

Sports

After a week of rampant speculation about Bryan Harsin’s future at Auburn and an internal inquiry into his handling of the football program, Harsin remains the head coach of the Tigers.

On Friday, the school announced that Harsin will return for his second season at the helm.

“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,” outgoing president Jay Gogue said in a statement. “We are equally committed to providing him the necessary means to achieve that goal.”

Harsin’s tenure started off promisingly on the field, with the team winning six of his first eight games last season, before the wheels came off. Auburn lost five straight games to finish a disappointing 6-7, recruiting slipped below expectations and a slew of players and coaches exited the program.

Harsin said he left for vacation last week with no indication that his job was in jeopardy. He quickly found out that was not the case, as the university was looking into the reasons why players and coaches were departing.

Harsin maintained this week that he had no plans to leave and that he wanted to continue as Auburn’s football coach. Now, he got his wish.

ESPN’s Chris Low, Mark Schlabach, Pete Thamel and Alex Scarborough address how we got here and what happens next.

How did we get here?

Had Auburn held on in the final two minutes to upset Alabama in the Iron Bowl in November, Harsin would have been hailed as a conquering hero. Instead, Auburn lost to its archrival, parted ways with offensive coordinator Mike Bobo two days later and got beat by Houston in the Birmingham Bowl to finish the season 6-7.

Then came the flood of transfers — 18 players leaving in all — and defensive coordinator Derek Mason’s decision to step down. Mason eventually took a $400,000 pay cut to go to Oklahoma State.

Two days before the Feb. 2 signing date, Harsin’s pick to replace Bobo, Austin Davis, abruptly resigned for personal reasons.

Last Friday, animosity that had been building behind the scenes spilled out into the public, as multiple reports surfaced that Harsin’s future was in doubt.

Administration officials, including executive vice president and chief operating officer Lt. Gen. Ron Burgess, conducted interviews with some of the people who left the program, sources told ESPN. At the root of the inquiry, sources said, was the overall volatility in the program and Harsin’s treatment of players and assistant coaches.

Lee Hunter, who transferred from Auburn to UCF this offseason, posted on Instagram that “Coach Harsin has the true mindset for a winner but has a terrible mindset as a person,” and that “the reason I chose to leave auburn because we got treated like we wasn’t good enough and like dogs.” More than a dozen players from Auburn’s 2021 roster liked the post.

Some current players responded by defending Harsin. Linebacker Chandler Wooten tweeted, “We didn’t need a best friend we needed a coach.”

Harsin responded by telling ESPN, “Any attack on my character is bulls—.” Harsin, who was on vacation at the time, insisted he was “the right man for the job,” saying, “I’m not planning on going anywhere.”

Harsin returned to Auburn on Wednesday night and had what was described as a benign meeting with the officials running the school’s inquiry into the football program. The following morning, he showed up to a previously scheduled meeting of SEC football coaches in Birmingham, Alabama.

While 12 of the 14 coaches came in through the front door, Harsin entered via an unmarked side entrance. He left without answering any questions from reporters.

In his own statement Friday, Harsin said, “This has been one of the hardest weeks of my career and it had nothing to do with my coaching ability. The personal attacks on me and my family went too far and were without justification. Their resolve through this experience has been incredible but also completely expected.”

Prominent alumni and boosters at Auburn were skeptical from the beginning that Harsin, coming from Boise State, would be a good fit in the SEC, especially on the recruiting trail. They didn’t question his coaching acumen as much as they did his ability to win recruiting battles in the SEC footprint against the likes of Alabama’s Nick Saban and Georgia‘s Kirby Smart.

When Auburn has been at its best, it has always been able to get its share of great players from the state of Georgia. In the 2022 recruiting class, the Bulldogs signed six of the top 15 players in the state of Georgia, according to ESPN’s rankings, and the Tigers didn’t sign any top-15 players. Additionally, Auburn signed just five players ranked among ESPN’s top 300 prospects nationally. That’s compared to Alabama signing 14 of the top 100 prospects and Georgia signing 10 of the top 100 prospects.

It didn’t help Harsin any with his critics that he missed an event hosted by the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association in Macon, Georgia earlier this month. State championship-winning high school coaches were honored at the event, which was attended by South Carolina’s Shane Beamer, Tennessee’s Josh Heupel, Florida State’s Mike Norvell and Smart, among others.

Why did Auburn keep him?

The decision about Harsin’s future, ESPN learned late this week, was not in the hands of the athletic department. Instead, the inquiry into Harsin was run by university administration outside of the school’s athletic department and included use of outside legal counsel.

In a statement, the university acknowledged the growing chatter when it said, “We do not make institutional decisions based on social media posts or media headlines.”

Gogue told reporters, “There have been a lot of rumors and speculation about our football program. I just want you to know we’re involved in trying to separate fact from fiction.”

Apparently, that fact-finding mission did not uncover a fireable offense.

Without cause to terminate Harsin’s contract, Auburn would have owed him the $18.3 million remaining on his six-year deal — $9.15 million due within the next month, and the rest to be paid out in quarterly payments starting on July 15 over the following year.

That would have been a lot to ask considering the massive buyout Auburn entered into when former coach Gus Malzahn was fired a year ago. Malzahn was due $21,450,000, and that’s to say nothing of his staff, which included offensive and defensive coordinators who each made more than $1 million per year.

With Gouge giving way to new president Chris Roberts in May, sources told ESPN that Gouge wasn’t in favor of making another head coaching change (and having to pay another huge buyout), and then having to hire another head coach at this juncture, especially when a new president would be in place for the next football season.

“And with the way this whole thing dragged on with Harsin and his family being attacked on social media, the administration knew that Harsin had almost become a sympathetic figure with the fans, most of whom were tired of the chaos and instability surrounding the program and a select few money people calling all the shots,” a source told ESPN.

The SEC announced an annual distribution of roughly $54.6 million per school on Thursday, but paying multiple former coaches would have been a stretch.

What does Harsin need to do long term?

There’s a lot of fence-mending that needs to happen in the coming weeks and months, whether it’s in the locker room or with the administration.

Harsin may have survived Auburn’s inquiry into his handling of the program, but that means little in the court of public opinion, where questions will continue to be asked about why 18 players and five coaches have left in the past few months. Given all the turmoil, might more players enter the transfer portal?

It’s difficult enough to recruit in the SEC when there are only rumors of internal problems. The fact that this has played out so publicly means Harsin and his staff have an even steeper uphill battle ahead of them to convince players to join the program.

Remember, lackluster recruiting was one of the main criticisms of Harsin before he was put under the microscope this past week. Finishing in the bottom half of the SEC in the recruiting rankings isn’t good enough, and it’s an area he’ll need to address in a substantial way.

Speaking of the coaching staff, there’s still work to be done on that front, with the role of offensive coordinator still vacant. Elevating wide receivers coach Eric Kiesau was a possibility a week ago, but Harsin may feel pressure now to go with someone who has deeper roots in the SEC.

Whatever the case, the last week has revealed a staggering lack of alignment between the head coach, athletic department and university administration.

Harsin told ESPN last week that some changes needed to be made if Auburn was going to get back to championship level. But it was also expressed to him during talks leading up to the decision that he would be retained that he, too, needed to make some changes, in particular the way he communicates and relates to players, sources told ESPN.

What’s in store next season?

Don’t be fooled by games against Mercer and San Jose State to start the season. There won’t be any let up in Year 2 for Harsin and the Tigers as they face a schedule that features five games against Way-Too-Early Top 25 teams, plus an out-of-conference showdown against perennial Big Ten power Penn State.

And who will be the quarterback for Auburn? For the first time in four years, his name won’t be Bo Nix after the former SEC Freshman of the Year transferred to Oregon.

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.

In other words, while there are a lot of options under center, none of them are sure things.

And even if one of them does emerge as a playmaker, what will he have to work with? Again,18 players have transferred from last year’s roster, including leading receiver Kobe Hudson.

On defense, last season’s leading tackler, linebacker Zakoby McClain, is off to the NFL, along with cornerback Smoke Monday, who was third on the team in tackles and third in pass breakups.

If the Tigers couldn’t hold onto the lead and beat Alabama at home last season, how will they go on the road and beat the Crimson Tide, who return Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Bryce Young and the nation’s best defensive player, linebacker Will Anderson Jr.?

Given the schedule and the roster makeup, it’s difficult to imagine a quick turnaround after going 6-7. And if a sub-.500 record was enough to throw Harsin’s job in doubt this time, we could be right back here next year.

The one thing that won’t change much between now and then will be his buyout.

Even if Harsin were to be fired without cause following the 2022 season, Auburn would still owe him nearly $15 million.

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