Only Auburn.

Only Auburn would need to announce in early-February that its coach is still employed after just 1 year on the job. Only Auburn could have a week wherein an internal investigation was orchestrated in a clear attempt to fire a coach without having to pay an $18 million buyout.

And only Auburn could go about like it’s business as usual.

To be fair, it sort of is “business as usual.” This is the same program that brought you “JetGate” with Tommy Tuberville keeping his job after the university attempted to replace him with Bobby Petrino. How fitting it is that nearly 2 decades after that, Auburn is still doing Auburn things.

No, the week of Harsin Hysteria (trademark pending) wasn’t just some media narrative that was blown out of proportion. If you believe that’s the case, find me another university that releases multiple statements involving the status of a coach after Year 1.

You can tell by Harsin’s statement from Friday that this wasn’t just some silly rumor run amok:

The reported divide between Harsin and the Auburn decision-makers was indeed real. And now, so is the challenge that lies ahead.

The damage might already be too much for this to ever work.

Before you tell me about how Tuberville lasted for an additional 5 seasons after JetGate, remind me what he did in the season following that wild 2003 sequence. Oh, that’s right. He went 13-0. It helped that Tuberville ripped off 4 consecutive top-15 finishes after Auburn got caught with its pants down flirting with another coach. The second that Tuberville fell short of the top-15 mark in 2008, he was gone.

Call me crazy, but it feels like we’re heading into a similar spot with Harsin — finish in the top 15 or pack your bags. That’s the message that’s being sent.

You thought it was difficult for Harsin to recruit before all of Auburn’s laundry hit the masses? Good luck doing that now. This is the same coach who came under fire for whiffing on 4 targets on National Signing Day and for failing to sign a top-100 recruit for the first time since 2009. That 2009 group was the transition class from Tuberville to Gene Chizik.

Check that. Auburn had multiple top-100 recruits in each of the past 12 classes before Harsin struck out in 2022. As in, during Harsin’s first full class. In Chizik’s first full class, he had 3 (not including Cam Newton). In Gus Malzahn’s first full class, he also had 3.

That’s the troubling sign, as many have pointed out. And instead, Auburn lost 19 players to the transfer portal since the Iron Bowl loss.

Somehow, it’s up to Harsin to figure out a way to turn that around. Like, in the same league where:

  • A) Jimbo Fisher just signed the top class in the 247sports rankings era
  • B) Nick Saban signed the No. 1 class in 9 of the last 12 years
  • C) Georgia has 9 consecutive top-10 classes
  • D) Half of the 5-star recruits in the 2022 class just signed
  • E) All the above

It’s “E.” It’s always “E.”

There’s no way in which Auburn’s week won’t be brought up on the recruiting trail.

If Harsin doesn’t embrace NIL, that gap might widen even more. Whether he supports it or not, it’s a part of the sport.

You had a week of Auburn current/former players venting about Harsin’s treatment of them or supporting the embattled coach. At the very least, we gathered that Harsin isn’t for everyone. That’s not an easy thing to overcome for anyone in the SEC, much less a guy who spent 21 of his previous 25 years in Idaho … who also fired 1 experienced SEC coordinator (Mike Bobo) and watched another (Derek Mason) take a $400,000 pay cut to take the same job at Oklahoma State.

Nothing about that screams “championship foundation.” Then again, if there’s any program that has a history of bouncing back out of nowhere, it’s Auburn. Perhaps that’s what’s next for Harsin.

If you close your eyes and picture it, you could see a scenario in which an Auburn team with 5 consecutive home games to start the season goes into the Georgia showdown with College GameDay in Athens. We’ll see David Pollack and Kirk Herbstreit applaud Harsin for rolling with the punches to get to that point as a likely top-15 team with a monumental matchup ahead.

After the way the week went, many (myself included) didn’t think Harsin would even have a chance to reach that point. If you’re an Auburn fan, you can hold out hope that no amount of hot-seat talk will deter Harsin after the week he just endured. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that we just watched Harsin go 6-7 with a 1-way street involving the transfer portal. Lost in the shuffle of the past week was the fact that he still needs to find a new offensive coordinator after the Austin Davis debacle. Whoever he hires will have a quarterback battle with 2 guys who left their respective schools after failing to capitalize on their opportunities to be SEC starters.

In case that wasn’t enough, Auburn’s 2022 schedule has road games at Alabama and Georgia — where the program hasn’t won in over a decade — as well as games against likely preseason Top 25 teams Texas A&M, Arkansas, Ole Miss and Penn State.

In a way, there are shades of LSU’s preseason outlook in 2018. Entering his second full season on the job, Ed Orgeron was on every hot-seat list on the internet with LSU facing as daunting of a schedule as any in the country. He went out and got Joe Burrow after the spring, which helped LSU reach its first New Year’s 6 bowl of the Playoff era.

Maybe Harsin has visions of dipping into the transfer portal and finding another quarterback. For all we know, his team just got a rallying cry that’ll yield an “I’m not going anywhere” season on The Plains. If that happens, we’ll all have the same reaction.

Only Auburn.

Harsin’s margin for error is gone. This week was a stark reminder that the movers and shakers at Auburn go beyond the athletic director who hired him (Allen Greene). Clearly, not everyone is rowing in the same direction. Somehow, someway, that has to change.

That can’t just be with words. That has to be with action:

This week will be a defining moment for Harsin’s tenure.

Thanks to the bungled way Auburn handled everything, the path to stability is steeper than ever at a place that hasn’t seen consecutive 10-win seasons since the 1980s. Go figure that Harsin’s $18 million roadblock might be why he still has any path at all. That buyout number shrinks to $15 million if Harsin is fired at the end of Year 2. That’ll be common knowledge on The Plains, no matter how many statements Auburn releases.

Time will tell if Harsin’s bosses just delayed the inevitable to save face. And by “face,” I mean “money.”

Business as usual.