The Same Page
On a wild last 36 hours for Bryan Harsin's time at Auburn and a familiar problem reaching a boiling point on the Plains
(Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
It’s an old problem manifesting itself in new ways.
Last month, when news first broke that Derek Mason was a serious candidate to leave Auburn for Oklahoma State, friend of the newsletter and former Tigers beat writer Brandon Marcello reported at 247Sports that the defensive coordinator and Bryan Harsin “have not been on the same page lately with staffing and philosophy.”
Harsin and his defensive coordinator weren’t on the same page, and that resulted in Mason walking away from Auburn for a lateral move, at best, at Oklahoma State.
Mason was already planning on leaving Auburn before Oklahoma State came into the picture. It’s why his hire by the Cowboys was met with frustrated social media posts from players asking what happened to Mason stepping away from coaching.
Less than two weeks later, Harsin had his other coordinator — former Seattle Seahawks quarterbacks coach Austin Davis — resign from the program. Davis cited “100 percent personal reasons” for his departure, but it was still a bad sign for a top assistant to leave before even getting to his first practice on the Plains.
The volatility on staff came at the worst time for Auburn, which went 0-for-4 with its chances to add to its 2022 class on National Signing Day on Wednesday. Meanwhile, Ja’Varrius Johnson — one of just two receivers with double-digit catches in 2021 who were still on the roster — entered the transfer portal that afternoon.
Johnson was the 19th player to enter the transfer portal this offseason from Auburn. According to friend of the newsletter Max Olson at The Athletic, only Maryland and Indiana have had more outgoing departures among Power 5 schools.
Meanwhile, Auburn has only brought in five transfers and has depth concerns at several positions, including Johnson’s home at wide receiver.
Early in Year 2 under Harsin, Auburn has had more players enter the transfer portal than it did in Year 1 — right after a major coaching change. At a time when coaching tenures are supposed to be moving forward, the Tigers’ roster has taken a step back in numbers and, on paper, overall talent level.
The two coordinator resignations and the National Signing Day misses led to Thursday night, when multiple reports of Harsin’s immediate future at Auburn being in doubt surfaced. Rumors ran wild overnight.
But it wasn’t just a bunch of smoke coming from disgruntled people with influence on the Plains. During Friday’s scheduled meeting of the university Board of Trustees in Montgomery, outgoing president Jay Gogue addressed it:
The fact that Auburn is even considering a decision on Harsin is significant. He just entered the second year of a six-year deal. There shouldn’t be any “decision” made to let a coach continue this early into his contract.
Yet, here Auburn is: Not on the same page.
That was the vibe during much of the coaching search that ended with Auburn hiring Harsin. It was a decision that some power brokers — perhaps ones who might be involved in the pressure here — did not like, as Allen Greene handled the search and decided to bring in someone from outside the SEC footprint.
Timing is everything, and the doubts around Harsin aren’t happening in a vacuum. Auburn was 6-2 entering the month of November and had a shot at winning the SEC West. Then the Tigers scored zero offensive touchdowns in a loss at Texas A&M, and starting quarterback Bo Nix broke a bone in his leg during a home defeat to Mississippi State that featured 40 unanswered points from the visitors.
Auburn struggled on offense, Harsin’s area of expertise as a coach, without Nix during the final three games — losses to South Carolina, rival Alabama and Houston. The Tigers seemed to reclaim some momentum with a strong push in the early signing period, but that loss to Houston in the Birmingham Bowl was the beginning of a long run of mostly bad news for the program that has lasted for more than a month.
If just one or two of those events go the other way, Auburn might not be in this position right now. But the program ultimately took a step backward in 2021 on the scoreboard, with blown second-half leads and personnel departures becoming all too common.
All of that is ultimately the backdrop for the firestorm that grew Friday. As an ESPN story Friday morning stated, “Harsin’s treatment of players and assistant coaches” had been called into question. In that same article, Harsin defended himself against the accusations, saying “any attack on my character is bulls—t” and “none of that is who I am.”
Before the ESPN story dropped, Lee Hunter — who transferred to Gus Malzahn’s UCF this offseason after not playing a down for Auburn in 2021 — posted a message on Instagram that said he left the program because players got treated “like dogs” and Harsin had “a terrible mindset as a person.”
Hunter’s Instagram post was liked by both former and current Auburn players. He later went on an Instagram Live stream that featured former Tiger players Zakoby McClain and Smoke Monday, among others, and vented frustrations about his time at Auburn. (It’s important to note that McClain did not have the same view as some of his former teammates.)
Other Auburn players took to social media to defend Harsin, including former linebacker Chandler Wooten and current seniors Derick Hall and John Samuel Shenker:
It’s an ugly situation that is playing out quite publicly in the social media age. Some players, including ones who are currently on the team, are taking sides against each other and their former teammates.
Unanimity is impossible, especially in giant organizations such as Power 5 football programs. With instant eligibility now available to first-time transfers, it’s easier than ever for players to decide to remove themselves from a school and go elsewhere. All teams, including the well-oiled machines that win titles, have their issues and attrition.
But the discord that affects virtually every level of the Auburn football experience right now is not normal. Players aren’t on the same page with each other. Coaches aren’t on the same page with each other. The people with power have never been on the same page with each other.
And when your three biggest rivals have won the last three national championships while holding a significant recruiting and development advantage over you, it’s hard to see how the situation gets better any time soon.
Once again, Auburn football isn’t pulling together in one direction, and the seams of the program are ripping in front of everyone. Whether Harsin gets a second season at Auburn or not, a situation that has only gotten more difficult since the Birmingham Bowl is looking increasingly untenable by the hour.
The short-term damage might already be done. Any conclusion to this saga will be divisive. Harsin has his fair share of critics and supporters both inside and outside the program. The rest of the offseason in 2022 is going to be extremely difficult for getting the roster help the Tigers need.
What is obvious, though, is that the people involved with Auburn football are not on the same page.
It’s not a new problem at Auburn. It was around, quite notably, in 2020, 2017 and 2003. But the ways that old problem is manifesting itself in 2022 are unlike any this place has seen yet.
Up next on The Auburn Observer: For our subscribers, there will be Observations from the No. 1-ranked Auburn men’s basketball team’s game against the Georgia Bulldogs in Athens.