Bryan Harsin is out, and John Cohen is in at Auburn
On the day when Auburn is finalizing a hire to replace former athletic director Allen Greene, it ended the tenure of Greene’s biggest move during his time on the Plains.
(Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
The timing feels rather fitting. On the day when Auburn is finalizing a hire to replace former athletic director Allen Greene, it swiftly ended the tenure of Greene’s biggest move during his time on the Plains — Bryan Harsin.
Auburn announced Monday, just before noon CT, that it was making a “change in football leadership.” Here is the full press release from Auburn athletics, which didn’t even mention Harsin by name:
Auburn University has decided to make a change in the leadership of the Auburn University football program. President Roberts made the decision after a thorough review and evaluation of all aspects of the football program. Auburn will begin an immediate search for a coach that will return the Auburn program to a place where it is consistently competing at the highest levels and representing the winning tradition that is Auburn football.
The move came just minutes after Mississippi State announced that its own athletic director, John Cohen, was resigning, effective immediately. News broke over the weekend that Cohen was Auburn’s top target its the permanent athletic director vacancy. Cohen was in Auburn on Saturday.
Auburn hasn’t yet announced the hire of Cohen, but Mississippi State’s announcement of Cohen’s departure mentioned that the school was “a victim of our own success in that several former MSU athletics directors have transitioned into similar roles at peer institutions in the Southeastern Conference.”
According to Ross Dellenger of Sports Illustrated, Cohen will be paid “about $1.5 million a year” at Auburn, plus incentives. Cohen recently got a raise to $1.1 million at Mississippi State, and Greene made only $625,000 a year during his time as Auburn’s athletic director.
Both Greene and Harsin arrived at Auburn with impressive resumes at smaller programs — Greene at Buffalo, and Harsin at Boise State. They had previous experience, albeit in smaller roles, at powerhouse programs. It wasn’t hard to see why either move was made, and there were stretches for each where it looked like things would work out for them.
Yet both turned out to be less-than-ideal fits at Auburn. Greene, who resigned before his contract expired, had struggles inside his department, mainly over finances. Harsin started 6-2 as Auburn’s head coach but finished with three wins in his final 13 games, giving him a winning percentage worse than any Tigers head man since Shug Jordan took over in 1952.
And it’s telling that the first of two big moves Auburn is going to make in the next month or so was plucking a sitting athletic director with SEC experience. Fit, over resume, looks like it will be prioritized under Auburn’s new leadership.
At first glance, it appears like this new era of Auburn athletics doesn’t look like it’s going to be stingy with its money. It reportedly will pay Cohen more than double the amount of his predecessor, and Harsin will get around $15 million in buyout money, with half of which due within the next 30 days, like Gus Malzahn.
And, according to reports out of Arkansas, Cohen wasn’t the only big-money swing Auburn made in the SEC:
Auburn’s announcement of the football coaching change — which, as it must be repeated, did not mention Harsin by name — says that an “immediate search” has begun for his replacement. There isn’t even word of who the interim head coach will be at the moment, if that tells you anything about the suddenness of the move.
Who will replace Harsin as Auburn’s next head football coach? Plenty of candidates will be mentioned in the coming hours and days. (We’ll break down a lot of them here in the Observer.) Reading between the lines, though, a premium should be placed on coaches who have experience in the SEC. Again: Fit over resume.
For now, though, the Observer agrees with friend of the newsletter Brandon Marcello at 247Sports, who tweeted soon after the news of Harsin’s firing broke that the top name to watch at Auburn is Lane Kiffin.
The Ole Miss head coach checks a lot of boxes: current SEC success, a proven offensive system in the league, a strong command of a transfer portal that Auburn will have to hit hard in the years ahead and exciting name value for the fan base. To put it another way, hiring Kiffin would be like landing a Bruce Pearl for football.
Kiffin has been successful at Ole Miss and might elect to stay there for several more seasons, but there might be a ceiling on what can realistically be accomplished at a place that hasn’t won an SEC title since 1963 and has never been to the SEC title game.
That parallels with what is happening with Cohen, who is leaving the other big Mississippi school for a job at Auburn. Mississippi State has become a more well-rounded athletic department under Cohen’s watch, with massive facility upgrades marking his tenure in Starkville.
But the financial potential — both individually and in the world of NIL — looks stronger at Auburn, which has ramped up its own collective in recent months after a slow start. (Harsin never seemed to be a fan of NIL, and that attitude will probably be different in his eventual replacement.)
Things are changing rapidly at Auburn, which walked through a tumultuous and rather public internal investigation of Harsin nine months ago. The president, athletic director and head coach during that time are all no longer here.
Auburn will still have a lot of work to do in order to get everyone pulling in the same direction, which has been an issue for years and years on the Plains. But is an opportunity for a real shift in the direction of Auburn athletics, specifically as it relates to football. (Many of the other sports on the Plains are getting along quite well.)
Auburn made the tough and decisive decision to fire Harsin during the middle of the season, which won’t be cheap. And, man, does it look really decisive:
Yet it doesn’t feel like a tough decision at all from a football standpoint, despite what people away from the Plains will say about big buyouts and “not having enough time.” Auburn had severely regressed from what Harsin inherited from Gus Malzahn in 2021, and these Tigers are currently putting up numbers that can only be compared to the 3-9 season in 2012 or the pre-Shug Jordan days on the Plains.
On top of that, recruiting has regressed massively at a point when Auburn’s two biggest rivals are moving further ahead of the pack, other SEC schools are making huge moves and the Tigers’ own roster is heading toward a big drop-off in talent in the very near future.
Harsin will go down as the least successful head coach in the program’s modern era — an odd fit of a hire by an athletic director who didn’t stay around for much longer. His replacement will have his work cut out for him, as a lot of on- and off-field reconstruction will have to do be done.
Finding that replacement will be Cohen’s first big move at Auburn. He’s just a piece of the puzzle when it comes to hiring a head football coach, but he’s a rather large piece.
The double-barrel blast of news Monday morning further shows that never a dull moment on the Plains when it comes to Auburn football.
And with the house-cleaning that’s currently being done, there’s a chance for those moments to be more positive for Tigers fans than what they’ve seen in the last two years.
Friends of the Program will have an emergency podcast up tomorrow morning. There will be plenty of newsletters to come on Auburn football’s search and the Cohen hire. Oh, and basketball starts soon.
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