Toomer Troubles: A Bryan Harsin Experiment

By George Somerville

With rumour and speculation surrounding Bryan Harsin and the football program at Auburn, George takes a look at what is happening in and around Toomer’s Corner:

Whether or not Bryan Harsin departs the Auburn football program this week it is clear – like his predecessors – that the Tigers head coach does not have the support of the University Board of Trustees. And maybe more importantly, the Auburn boosters…

A Year In Auburn

As I write this Bryan Harsin remains the head football coach at Auburn University. But with every word typed it appears another event or comment or rumour surfaces about the coach’s time on the Plains, providing further fuel to the fire as to why Harsin won’t be the head coach at Auburn for Spring football.

Harsin arrived in Auburn a little over a year ago in heralded fashion. He had proceeded over the Powerhouse of the Mountain West – Boise State – who were on the national radar. Harsin was the out of state, out of SEC, fashionable hire.

However, with Harsin having no previous SEC experience, or even any ties to the SEC, the cynics had issues with the hire from the get go. Previous Head Coach Gus Malzahn had been let go – despite never having a losing season during his time with the Tigers – never having the full backing of the Auburn booster club.

With stories surfacing now of Harsin’s time in Boise and Arkansas State, the warning signs were there. But no-one at Auburn seemed to take notice.

When Malzahn left the boosters wanted a coach known to them – possibly Billy Napier (now at Florida) or Kevin Steele, who already was at Auburn at the time. But Athletic Director Allen Greene looked for a disciplinarian to take charge of the football program. And Harsin was that disciplinarian. This would become obvious with a high staff turnover rate within both the roster and the coaching staff. But too high a turnover? It would seem so. This wasn’t just a new broom sweeping clean. This was Bryan Harsin’s style of management.

Image credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Red Flags

While the red flags were already there – mostly due to 18 players entering the transfer portal and the comings and goings of positional group staff – most folk sat up when defensive coordinator Derek Mason left for the same position at Oklahoma State and for less money. Mason, formerly head coach at Vanderbilt, left Auburn in a sideways move to be paid $400k per year less in Stillwater.

Mason’s hire, given his impressive CV, was a headline hire for Harsin. Mason, who was on the verge of going back to the NFL – where he had worked previously with the Minnesota Vikings – had really made his coaching name with Stanford in the PAC-12 over a ten year period. Mason’s success in Palo Alto led him to Vanderbilt as Head Coach before moving to Auburn. By getting Mason as his defensive coordinator, Harsin had delivered an experienced name on the defensive side of the ball. That was until Mike Gundy and The Pokes came calling.

If this wasn’t the straw that broke booster’s backs, worse was to come shortly after when offensive co-ordinator Austin Davis stepped down from his role a matter of days before National Signing Day – perhaps the single worst time for a co-ordinator to step away from the role.

National signing day was a disaster for the Tigers; no surprise given both co-ordinators had moved on.

So it was clear that something was amiss, with two Harsin appointed coaches leaving in quick succession. This was no longer the new broom – this was a chainsaw.

Booster Influence

Image credit: Jeff Blake / USA TODAY Sports

Auburn isn’t alone in having a strong and influential booster club. Boosters do – and especially in this new era of NIL, will – continue to be an important part of funding for Universities and their sports programs. However Auburn’s boosters have a track record of being overly influential, a point that Harsin himself made early on in his Auburn coaching career. Speaking to ESPN, Harsin said,

“this place is not going to be a championship program until we change some things. You’ve got to let the head coach be the head coach and support him”.

Many boosters are too powerful for their own good and see their money not as a donation but as a ticket to be involved. This culture is now outdated but there is still a fine line football programs have to maintain between getting donations but keeping boosters at arms length. But yet in Auburn’s case  it would appear that the Auburn Board of Trustees and boosters have seen enough.


Image credit: AP Photo/Butch Dill

Writing On The Wall

The writing seemed on the wall as soon as the Board of Trustees issued a statement this week in the wake of rumours about their head coach,

 “The Auburn administration is judiciously collecting information from a variety of perspectives, including our student-athletes, and moving swiftly to understand any issues in accordance with university policies and procedures,”

Even more ominous was the hastily published “Employee Duty to Cooperate Policy” which was brought into effect this week. This suggests that an employee of the University can be removed from their position for not co-operating with University investigations. But more of this later.

Which brings us to the inevitable outcome of this circus.

Whether or not Bryan Harsin’s personal life has anything to do with the way he runs his football program is a debate that will run on for longer than Harsin remains in Auburn.

It is likely however that if Auburn’s 2021 season had been a winning one and not its first losing season since 2012, then there would be little talk of Harsin’s personal behaviour. But, losing 18 players in the course of 14 months, both co-ordinators and significant turnover (some deliberate and planned) in the coaching staff is likely the biggest reason for the lack of cohesiveness in the Auburn community.

I have to say I was shocked when quarterback Bo Nix announced his transfer to Oregon just after the season ended. If you are aware of the history of Nix and his entrenchment as Auburn quarterback you will know of the support Nix had from the boosters to get to this point. So transferring away from the school his father played for and had always wanted to play was sure to cause great consternation.

When, Not If

The debate is no longer if Bryan Harsin will continue to be the Auburn head coach. It is now when will Bryan Harsin not be the Auburn coach.

Harsin has just returned from vacation and is rumoured to have met with Auburn’s Athletic Director this week. Speculation is that Harsin was requested back to Auburn as soon as the stories of his personal life became known. Harsin refused and stayed on vacation.

With the combination of new code of conduct policies and a “judicious investigation’ it points to Auburn trying to find just cause to fire Harsin. By finding Harsin at fault or breaching the terms of his contract, then Auburn do not have to pay out the $18.3m buy-out from his contract. Which is a HUGE pay out for a coach one year into his contract. Add in the $21m or so that Auburn paid out to relieve Malzahn from his contract, and the Auburn football program could be on its way to $40m in buy outs in two years or so.

So it’s no surprise that the Auburn administration – rightly or wrongly – is trying to find a way out. It’s just they are not handling it well and its all playing out in public. Not good optics for either party.

The end is nigh for Bryan Harsin. It may even end before you get a chance to read this. A Mountain West experiment gone wrong. Auburn in crisis, again.


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george somerville

College football writer