First and 10: It's not you, Bryan Harsin. It's simply The Auburn Way
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
This is so much more than football. This is power at its core – those who have it, and those threatened by losing it.
We’ve seen this at Auburn for the better part of four decades now, and the playbook for change never ever wavers.
Attack professionally, attack personally, attack character and integrity.
Then write a fat buyout check and start over.
“I’ve coached everywhere and have seen everything,” a former Auburn assistant coach told me. “But I’ve never seen a more dysfunctional place.”
Bryan Harsin, the current Auburn coach, is simply next in the barrel.
Harsin will likely be fired at some point this month, and probably sooner than later. No amount of buyout money Auburn owes or public humiliation it must endure will change that.
To understand how we got to this point after 1 season under Harsin is to understand the Auburn Way. Which, of course, is not to be confused with the Auburn Family.
A university overflowing with genuine, salt-of-the-earth people (Auburn Family), overrun by a select few big on cash and short on principle (Auburn Way).
When those in power want you out, they’ll do everything they can to get you out. No cost too high, no road too low.
Years ago, it was a powerful banker and the Board of Trustees. It’s still the Board and influential boosters and a big Yellow problem. The actors change, the play doesn’t.
They infiltrate and suffocate to feed their egos, all in the name of doing what’s good and pure for the Loveliest Village on The Plain. If wins and losses won’t get you fired, character assassination will.
Terry Bowden, Tommy Tuberville, Gene Chizik, Gus Malzahn. All had winning records as coaches at Auburn, all either won a national title, played for a national title or coached an unbeaten season.
All were forced out.
And here comes Harsin, whose only sin was apparently not making it 100% clear to tailback Tank Bigsby to stay in bounds while Auburn was trying to run out the clock in a potential massive upset of bitter rival Alabama. Or maybe he did.
Either way, if Bigsby doesn’t run out of bounds and another precious 40 seconds runs off the game clock, Alabama doesn’t have time for a miracle comeback – and instead of finding a way to fire Harsin, the power brokers at Auburn have already extended his contract.
But now the wheels of change are turning, the character assassination has begun and outgoing Auburn president Jay Gogue announced at the end of last week that he and his administration are “trying to separate fact from fiction” within the football program.
That fact train, everyone, left a long time ago.
2. Set up for failure
Power can’t operate in a vacuum, it needs fuel. In this case, the sewer that is social media is the perfect igniter.
And with all things social media, negative sells. For every player on Twitter and Instagram who said Harsin treated players like “dogs” or didn’t get to “personally” know them, other players claimed the opposite about a coach who was fully invested in winning and changing a culture.
This internal strife goes on everywhere in all sports, collegiate or professional. A new staff arrives, and there are those who buy in and those who push back.
Everyone in charge – athletic directors or university presidents or ownership in professional sports – knows the process. Unless those in charge had their power usurped a year earlier.
“This had been brewing,” a source within the Auburn athletic department told me. “This was Day 1.”
It was that day in late December 2021, when Auburn athletic director Allen Greene – he, too, an outsider – won a power struggle and hired Harsin, the latest in a long line of successful coaches at Boise State.
Greene had earlier offered the job to Louisiana coach Billy Napier, who turned it down because of “alignment” issues within the program.
Auburn had just paid Malzahn $20.9 million to go away, and had a Group of 5 coach turn down the job because of the worst kept secret in the industry: The program is run by a select few in power.
Greene needed a coach with a strong back and the fortitude to stand tall, and he found Harsin. Auburn’s power brokers wanted Kevin Steele, Malzahn’s defensive coordinator and a longtime SEC assistant.
Now, for the first time in nearly 30 years, they were stuck without power.
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In December of 1992, on the day he was hired, Terry Bowden says he was given a ledger by a holdover assistant coach from the former staff that detailed player names and money owed to each, and the plan to continue the process.
I know this because I’ve seen the very ledger Bowden took from his office the day he resigned in 1998. I sat in Bowden’s home office in Orlando years ago, and saw the names and the numbers and how business was done at Auburn.
“See that look on your face?!” Bowden screamed. “Same look I had on my face when first saw it!”
Bowden said he told the assistant coach to pay off the players, and never do it again. Now, fast forward 30 years to Harsin, and the culture shift from the day he accepted the job.
“He was shocked by a lot of things,” one of Harsin’s close friends in the coaching fraternity told me. “He was blown away with the pervasive idea that you can be successful by doing things the wrong way. He’s not a shortcut guy and will push back hard on anyone who tries to sell that, on or off the field.”
3. Power corrupts, The Epilogue
This is the way the Auburn power operates. Doesn’t matter the sport, doesn’t matter the coach.
Case in point: basketball coach Bruce Pearl.
— Named in an NCAA violation in 2004 while the head coach at UW-Milwaukee for having a prospect to his daughter’s graduation party.
— Named in a violation at Tennessee in 2008 for having a prospect at a backyard cookout – and then lying to the NCAA about it, receiving a 3-year show-cause order.
— Hired Chuck Person as an assistant at Auburn, and Person accepted $100,000 to steer players to agents and financial advisors. Pearl claimed he knew nothing about it and was eventually suspended by the NCAA for 2 games.
Pearl, meanwhile, did what he does best: win games. He got Auburn to the Final Four in 2019, and the Tigers, who had never been No. 1, are currently the No. 1-ranked team in the nation.
A week ago, Pearl signed a contract that pays him $6.27 million annually, close to the amount Malzahn was making ($7 million) when he was fired after a 6-5 finish in the 2020 COVID season.
Translation: Harsin’s problem isn’t that he bucked the system, or didn’t play well with everyone. He didn’t win enough — and more specific, Alabama had the miracle comeback.
When you win, and win games that matter, the power brokers can’t get to you. But once there’s an opening – Bowden’s 1-5 start in 1998, Tuberville’s first loss to Alabama in 7 years, Chizik’s first losing season, Malzahn falling further behind Saban, Harsin’s embarrassing bowl loss to Houston – everyone and everything is fair game.
“I’ve known (Harsin) for a long time. I know who he is and what he’s about,” a Power 5 coach told me. “What I’m hearing now? It’s like you’re telling me a story about a guy I’ve never known.”
Remember the power playbook: attack professionally, attack personally, attack character and integrity.
Then write a fat buyout check and starter over.
4. New competition
Jimbo Fisher danced in the spotlight on National Signing Day, and we were blown away by the spectacle of it all.
We also missed the point: This isn’t about Fisher defending his No. 1 recruiting class from allegations of improprieties. It’s about Alabama coach Nick Saban – one of Fisher’s mentors and close friends in the coaching fraternity — directly (or indirectly) pointing them out because he sees the horizon quickly closing in.
And not just at Texas A&M.
During a Senior Bowl Summit last week in Mobile, Ala., Saban said, “People are making deals with high school players to go to their school.”
He added that schools with the most money, with deep-pocket alumni bases, “have the best chance to have the best team.”
He didn’t call out Fisher by name, but all 7 of the 5-star recruits signed by Texas A&M chose the Aggies over Alabama and a handful of other schools.
Saban now is dealing with recruiting problems on both sides of the SEC, at Georgia (East Division) and Texas A&M (West). He’ll also soon have significant competition at LSU with new coach Brian Kelly, and the days of going into the state of Florida and signing the top players are likely gone with the coaches changes at Florida (Napier) and Miami (Mario Cristobal).
NIL isn’t the story; it’s the great equalizer. It’s Saban’s beloved Process – built and cultivated with the help of Smart, Fisher, Napier and Cristobal, to name a few assistant coaches over the years – coming back at him full force.
5. The Weekly Five
Five coaching candidates for Auburn if Bryan Harsin is fired:
1. Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss: Every coaching search in the SEC starts here. He’s in a better situation at Ole Miss.
2. Hugh Freeze, Liberty: Could have had him after Malzahn’s firing and passed. He’s an obvious easy transition, and Auburn has hired coaches with checkered pasts (see: Pearl).
3. Kevin Steele, Miami DC: Maybe the Auburn power brokers win this time.
4. Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State: Has been trying to get to the SEC for years. This might be his best opportunity.
5. Matt Rhule, Carolina Panthers: Won’t put up with current power structure, no matter the money.
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout breaks down a draft-eligible player. This week: Mississippi State OT Charles Cross.
“Just a massive individual. You watch him on tape, and it’s impressive. You see him close up, and he is one unique specimen. He’s long, he’s strong, has really good hands and a strong base. He’s fluid and quick, so he won’t be overmatched.
“You draft him, and he’s your starting left tackle from Day 1. There are certainly concerns about his run block ability. He hasn’t shown much, but some of that can be attributed to the pass-oriented offense Mississippi State runs. If you’re spending a top-5 pick on him, you’re taking him for pass pro. That’s the premium in this league.”
7. Power Poll
This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: First player taken in the 2022 NFL Draft and round projection.
1. Georgia: LB Nakobe Dean (1).
2. Alabama: OT Evan Neal (1).
3. Texas A&M: OG Kenyon Green (1)
4. Kentucky: OT Darian Kinnard (1-2)
5. Arkansas: WR Treylon Burks (1)
6. LSU: CB Derek Stingley, Jr. (1)
7. Florida; CB Kaiir Elam (1-2).
8. Ole Miss: QB Matt Corral (1-2)
9. Mississippi State: OT Charles Cross (1)
10. Tennessee: DT Matthew Butler (3-4)
11. South Carolina: DE Kingsley Enagbare (1-2)
12. Auburn: CB Roger McCreary (3)
13. Missouri: RB Tyler Badie (4)
14. Vanderbilt: CB Allan George (4-5)
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: You wrote months ago that Texas and Oklahoma would be playing in the SEC in 2022. Do you still believe that? — Phillip Thornton, Dallas.
Phillip: Two SEC sources told me “the expectation” was Oklahoma and Texas would play in the SEC in 2022. It’s up to those two institutions to find a way to play in 2022.
Is it possible this late? Of course. You better believe the SEC has a 2022 schedule just in case Texas and Oklahoma buy their way out of their remaining years in the Big 12, or if a deal is struck.
I’ve also written that the Big 12 desperately needs the SEC to keep its autonomous status (see: Power 5 status), which would pave the way for more money through the Playoff payout and more bargaining power when negotiating a new media rights deal.
It could be a combination of a mitigated buyout — where the Big 12 still receives walkaway money from Texas and OU — and the SEC’s support for the Big 12 keeping its A5 status.
If Texas and OU are to play in the SEC in 2022, any deal will have to happen within the next few months.
62.39 million. The amount of buyout money paid by Auburn for 5 coaches (if Harsin is fired). The breakdown:
- Terry Bowden: $620,000.
- Tommy Tuberville: $5.1 million.
- Gene Chizik: $11.09 million.
- Gus Malzahn: $21.7 million.
- Bryan Harsin: $18.3 million.
10. Quote to note
Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin: “I joked the other day I didn’t know if Texas A&M was going to incur a luxury tax, and how much they paid for their signing class.”