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Bryan Harsin will remain at Auburn. How did we get here, and what's next?
After a bizarre week on the Plains, the Tigers will move forward in a situation that got even more challenging — for no clearly defined reason.
HC Bryan Harsin (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
Going through a week of uncertainty whether your head football coach is going to get to the second year of a six-year contract is not normal.
But this is Auburn football, and nothing is ever normal.
On Friday afternoon, Auburn University announced that Bryan Harsin would remain the Tigers’ head coach after an “evaluation of concerns raised” regarding the football program.
Here is the full statement from Harsin:
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. We saw and felt the worst of the worst in some people. Fortunately, we also saw the best of the best in others and we will always be grateful for the support of so many through a very difficult time – our players, staff, the Auburn family, and many others.
I know who I am as a husband, father and football coach and cooperated fully throughout this process. I believe that every challenge in life is an opportunity to grow and learn. This is no different. Every day we’re not moving forward together is a step in the wrong direction. In order for us to take the Auburn program where we all want it to go we must, at all levels, commit to each other and this great university that we all love. I’m confident we can get there under the leadership of Dr. Gogue, incoming President Roberts, Allen Greene, and our Board of Trustees.
I’m proud to be your head coach and appreciate the opportunity to lead the incredible group of young men in our locker room. War Eagle!
And here is the full release from school president Jay Gogue:
Dear Auburn Family,
I am pleased to report that the evaluation of concerns raised regarding our football program is complete. I am equally pleased to confirm that Bryan Harsin remains our head football coach.
As an institution of higher education, Auburn will always take the action necessary to ensure the well-being of its students, faculty, and staff. Recently, individuals raised concerns to my administration about the football program. The nature of these concerns compelled a fact-finding review. To do nothing would have been an abdication of the university’s responsibilities.
Over the past week, my administration conducted that review. It included meetings and interviews with current and former football coaching and administrative staff, numerous players, university administrators and other individuals who offered perspective on the issues that had been raised. To be clear, this process, which was never individual- or outcome-specific, did not yield information that should change the status of our coaching staff or football program.
All should understand that in matters such as these the roles of the university administration and the Board of Trustees are distinct and separate. To be very specific, the decisions made were mine alone as the president. The Board played no role in the fact-finding or the decision-making process.
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. We are equally committed to providing him the necessary means to achieve that goal.
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. We regret the concern, anger, frustration or hurt that this caused any member of the Auburn family.
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. We regret the concern and anxiety this situation caused the Harsin family and the others involved.
Let me be clear — our university, the administration and the entire Board of Trustees stand behind Coach Harsin and are ready to help him succeed as the leader of our football program. It is my hope and expectation that the entire Auburn Family will join us in uniting behind Coach Harsin. With that support, I have no doubt that Auburn Football’s best days are ahead.
Every man and woman who bleeds orange and blue is treasured at Auburn. While families quarrel and disagree from time to time, we end up remembering what brings us together as one – a love for our great university. Our university has never been stronger whether it be academics, student achievement, financial stability and, yes, athletics. We applaud everyone who provides dedication, loyalty and hard work to make Auburn the truly great university it is today.
If you zoom out on the situation, there’s a simple explanation from the university. Auburn received enough concerns to trigger an inquiry into Harsin, went through all of its necessary procedures and ultimately didn’t find reasons to fire him for cause. Therefore, he remains Auburn’s head coach.
Suppose all of it is as simple as that. But everything else involving the handling of the situation creates a barrage of questions:
How did the news that Harsin’s job was in jeopardy get out last week?
How did the situation get to a point to where Harsin was already defending himself in an ESPN interview last Thursday night?
Why did outgoing president Jay Gogue willingly put more fuel on the fire when he said — at a Board of Trustees meeting where this discussion wasn’t on the agenda — that the school was looking to “separate fact from fiction” regarding the program last Friday morning?
Why did the university feel the need to release a statement on Monday about the situation?
What was all that about the new “employee duty to cooperate” policy that was added by the university on Tuesday afternoon and discovered by media members on Wednesday?
Why did Harsin go to the SEC coaches meeting in Birmingham on Thursday morning while his job status was still in question?
All of these questions don't have clear and obvious answers. And those questions created a situation to where the majority of onlookers — this writer included, and just this morning! — believed that Harsin wouldn’t be Auburn’s head coach moving forward.
Having a coach’s job security questioned this early and this publicly in his tenure is often fatal to any chances of success. College football programs with high aspirations, especially ones where your top three rivals have won the last three national championships, need to have everyone pulling all in the same direction.
This past week has further proved that Auburn isn’t one of those programs.
In the end, the people in charge at Auburn — your results may vary on the identification of them — are not going to make the decision to spend more than $18 million and go through another coaching search at one of the most inopportune times on the calendar. The program won’t be plunged into further instability at the moment.
Still, go back to early last week, before news first broke, and examine the situation for Harsin and the Auburn football program.
Auburn had one of the worst finishes to the season of any FBS team, losing five straight games — the final four of which featured blown second-half leads. It was the program’s first losing season since 2012, and Harsin’s predecessor never had one of those. On-field, there was a clear step backwards.
Since the end of the regular season, Auburn has had 19 scholarship players enter the transfer portal, which ranks among the highest marks of any Power Five program. Most notably, Auburn has lost a three-year starting quarterback, two of its top three receivers and eight players across the defensive front to the portal. To date, the Tigers have only brought in five incoming transfers for 2022.
Large amounts of players hitting the portal this offseason is nothing new for any program — even national champion Georgia had multiple departures — but the Tigers have had a higher amount of players leave this year than after the coaching change last year and have only had five incoming transfers so far.
In terms of both numbers and talent, Auburn’s roster was regressing at a time when a coaching tenure should be taking the next step. Using 247Sports’ combined transfer and recruiting rankings, Auburn is No. 21 nationally in the 2022 cycle and No. 10 in the SEC. The only SEC West team with a lower ranking is Mississippi State, who pulled off a massive comeback at Jordan-Hare Stadium to beat Auburn during the November slide.
It can take time to build up a strong recruiting operation, and Harsin entered at a time when COVID regulations made it more difficult early. But, as Andy Staples showed, in great detail, at The Athletic on Sunday, the first cycle “tends to tell us exactly what kind of recruiter that coach is.” Gene Chizik’s first full class at Auburn was No. 6 in the country. Gus Malzahn’s was No. 6, too. Other highly successful coaches in the SEC hit the ground running in recruiting, while Harsin did not.
Auburn downgraded in recruiting at a time when four of the teams it plays every season were in the top six of the 2022 class — including Texas A&M, the recruiting national champion that hasn’t won an on-field one yet, and an LSU program that recently made its own big change at head coach. Meanwhile, divisional foes Ole Miss and Arkansas have been among the biggest winners in the transfer portal this offseason.
Auburn’s recruiting outlook ahead of a 2023 cycle that might be one of the most talent-filled ones in the state of Alabama’s history is far from ideal. The Tigers have a commitment from local 4-star offensive lineman Bradyn Joiner, but he was one of just a small number of in-state blue chips who were at a recent junior day event.
Recent events will make it tougher for Auburn to bring in quality recruits for the future and get closer to the talent level where several of its biggest annual opponents operate. It will also be a challenge in the immediate future, as Auburn could use more transfers to reinforce the roster for the 2022 season.
The Tigers aren’t devoid of talent by any means. Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter are still leading the way for the running back room. Auburn’s tight end group is one of the deepest in the country. The defensive front still has top-end stars such as Colby Wooden, Derick Hall, Marcus Harris and Eku Leota. Owen Pappoe and Nehemiah Pritchett are great leaders for the back two levels of the defense.
But whoever succeeds Bo Nix on offense — the Tigers have three former transfers who haven’t been first-choice QB1s at the college level yet, plus two freshmen — is currently paired with a wide receiver room that currently has eight scholarship options. Only one of them (Shedrick Jackson) caught double-digit passes last season, and more than half of them haven’t made a single reception yet.
Elsewhere, Auburn’s offensive line is veteran-laden once again but has struggled for consistency over the last few seasons. All three levels of the defense will have to rely on unproven depth behind the big names after the offseason exodus.
Auburn needs help in the transfer portal, which should crank up for its usual second wave around the end of spring practices across the country. But can the Tigers get that when the roster and the staff have been this unstable so far this offseason?
Harsin still has to hire an offensive coordinator to replace the recently resigned Austin Davis, and he told ESPN last week he “has struggled to find clarity on the contract numbers” for that role.
Auburn was able to bring in Jimmy Brumbaugh and Christian Robinson on the defensive staff during the coordinator resignations, so it’s not like the place is too toxic for any new hires. But time will be of the essence, as spring practice starts next month and recruiting is a 24/7/365 game.
In that same ESPN story, Harsin held firm against the allegations of misconduct and maintained his desire to remain as Auburn’s head coach. That continued over the past week. Harsin didn’t settle. He didn’t take a reduced buyout to move on from the program. He’s stuck to his guns from the moment he arrived at Auburn.
Harsin has had vocal supporters both inside the program and inside the fan base throughout this process. A number of veteran and newly arrived players came to his defense last weekend and have held firm on social media.
Although they were left hanging by leadership over the past week, players on Auburn’s roster kept working through this saga, and that will continue into the spring and summer months. They deserved better in all of this.
Everyone involved with Auburn football understands there’s a lot of work to be done this offseason in order for the program to take any step forward in 2022. Harsin even said as much after the Birmingham Bowl loss to Houston.
And there is definitely value in letting a coach have time to get his program going on his own terms. Harsin will seemingly get that chance again this year, but the destructive process to get there means it will always have a giant asterisk attached to it. Auburn made things harder for itself, and there are no real winners here.
From the outside, Auburn looks even more divided than usual. The way the last week unfolded has created many more questions than answers.
In the good times and the bad times, Auburn football is never normal. Nothing about this saga was ever normal. And whatever happens next will only reinforce that.
Up next on The Auburn Observer: We’ll have a premium podcast for subscribers up later tonight, followed by coverage over the weekend of Auburn basketball’s home game against Texas A&M.