ATLANTA — As Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin spoke, leading off the final day of SEC Media Days, a grid of the Tigers’ 2022 schedule flashed on the screen above him. Georgia awaits, as do LSU, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and, of course, Alabama. It’s a brutal schedule, and it doesn’t even include Auburn’s toughest opponent.
As always, Auburn’s greatest challenge in 2022 will be Auburn itself.
Sporting a crisp blue and orange tie and a tight haircut, Harsin leaned forward at the podium, his body language as outwardly aggressive as any coach this week. After a few perfunctory remarks, he took a run at the elephant in the room: the multi-pronged February controversy that nearly cost him his job.
“There was an inquiry. It was uncomfortable. It was unfounded. It presented an opportunity for people to personally attack me, my family, and also our program,” Harsin said. “And it didn't work.”
Harsin didn’t want to dwell on the events of the offseason, but they will define his tenure at Auburn, whether it’s measured in months, years or decades. He arrived in Auburn a year ago from Boise State, where he’d won nearly 80 percent of his team’s games. In the first few weeks at Auburn, he kept that streak going, leading the Tigers to a 6-2 record.
But then the wheels fell off, the engine dropped out, and the entire frame cracked. Auburn lost its last five games of the season, a staggering face-plant that included a blown 28-3 lead to Mississippi State, a blown two-touchdown lead against South Carolina, a blown double-digit lead against Alabama in the quadruple-overtime Iron Bowl and a blown fourth-quarter lead against Houston in the season-ending Birmingham Bowl.
Auburn squandered opportunity after opportunity in the closing weeks of 2021. With every loss, the foundation beneath Harsin cracked a little more, and the support for him within the Auburn administration shrunk.
In the weeks after the Birmingham Bowl, players and coaches alike ran from the Auburn program like it was the last day of school. Twenty players, including quarterback Bo Nix, and five coaches, including one who’d been on the job for just six weeks, fled the Plains, some with parting shots.
In a since-deleted Instagram post, defensive tackle Lee Hunter, who transferred to UCF, wrote that "Coach Harsin has the true mindset for a winner but has a terrible mindset as a person,” adding “the reason I chose to leave auburn because we got treated like we wasn't good enough and like dogs."
At the same time, ugly rumors about Harsin’s personal life surfaced, further complicating his viability as a coach. Social media lit up with allegations, each wilder than the one before. His wife Kes took to Instagram with a message: “Rumors are carried by haters, spread by fools, and accepted by idiots.”
Several players also expressed support for Harsin on Twitter. “We didn’t need a best friend we needed a coach,” captain Chandler Wooten wrote. “that’s what we had.”
Questions about Harsin’s personal and professional life alike spurred the Auburn administration into action, starting with a statement indicating that the university was “judiciously collecting information from a variety of perspectives.”
“Decisions regarding the future of Auburn and its Athletics programs, as always, are made in the interests of our great university and in fairness to all concerned,” the school said in a statement. “We do not make institutional decisions based on social media posts or media headlines.”
The university did, however, have to make decisions with an eye on the bottom line. Harsin had an $18 million buyout in his contract, and the university was already paying former coach Gus Malzahn a $21.5 million buyout after firing him in 2020. Paying $40 million to coaches not on staff would be tough for even Auburn to stomach.
All of this unfolded while Harsin was on vacation in Mexico. He returned in mid-February to fight for his job, and met with both outgoing and incoming Auburn presidents, among other university officials. A group of players also campaigned on Harsin’s behalf, talking him up to various administration members.
“We knew we wanted to back him, wanted him to be our head coach,” said senior tight end John Samuel Shenker, one of the players who talked up Harsin to university officials. “That’s something we all bought into, so we did everything we could to ensure he stayed there.”
The gambit worked, at least in the sense that Harsin kept his job. But Harsin’s critics charge that his recruiting abilities remain a question mark at best. Rivals’ 2022 rankings place the Tigers at 18th in the nation, fifth in the SEC West and eighth in the SEC overall, 10th if future members Texas and Oklahoma are included.
Moreover, there’s that late-season collapse. Either one would be enough to raise concerns on the Plains, but together, there’s a sense of urgency around Auburn that’s unlike any other in the SEC right now. The doubters and critics are out there waiting for Harsin's first stumble.
“We've told our recruits: watch,” Harsin said. “I think the ones that have been on our campus, they see the energy and the vibe, what's happening, how the players are responding, coaches are connecting, everything that we're doing. There's a great energy in our program right now. There's alignment in our program right now.”
The offseason controversy “brought us a lot closer,” Shenker said. “I think there was a flip-the-switch after it happened. Everybody was pushing for him to come back, so when he came back, it was, ‘Let’s go. Let’s get to work.’”
“Anytime we're going backwards, talking about the past, we're not moving forward, talking about the future,” Harsin said. “We're focused on bigger and better things … It's made us, in my opinion, a much stronger football team and program. That will continue.”
Auburn will be at the center of the growing SEC-Big Ten rivalry early in the season, squaring off in a proxy battle against Penn State. If the Tigers can win that game, Harsin will get his wish, to focus on what’s ahead. But if Auburn stumbles again, what’s momentarily past will once again become the present.
Contact Jay Busbee at email@example.com or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.