Bryan Harsin couldn’t have imagined spending his 46th birthday doing anything but getting his squad ready for a big game when he left his comfort zone of Boise State for Auburn.
Instead of trying to find answers for a team mired in a four-game losing streak coming off Saturday’s 41-27 defeat against Arkansas, Harsin wakes up on his birthday fired as the Auburn football coach. He spent Sunday at the facility going over game film with the coaching staff and players, trying to figure out what went wrong. He returned to Auburn’s football building Monday, planning to get ready for Saturday’s game against Mississippi State until word came down that Auburn planned to move on.
As it goes in today’s social media era, several players and their parents found out about Harsin getting fired via Twitter. Harsin showed up to work, got fired, and then watched the world discuss the decision on television before he got to speak to his family or address the team.
Auburn ended Harsin’s tumultuous tenure on the Plains after a 9-12 record and 4-9 in Southeastern Conference games. His teams lost seven of the last eight SEC games – he went 4-11 overall against Power 5 competition – and the one win against Missouri took an improbable missed field goal at the end of regulation and an unbelievable fumble in the end zone by the visiting Tigers to seal the Auburn win.
How did Harsin go from a promising start with consecutive wins against ranked opponents to one of the shortest tenures since 1929 for an Auburn head coach? It’s a complicated set of circumstances that we’ll explore.
Watching sullen fans slink silently out of Jordan-Hare on a cloudy Saturday afternoon makes it easy to forget that Auburn was 6-2 a year ago with wins against ranked opponents Arkansas and Ole Miss before heading into a game against Texas A&M.
Losing at Kyle Field in a bizarre game where neither team scored an offensive touchdown at the time felt forgivable. Ironically, Auburn played against future transfer quarterback Zach Calzada, who suffered a shoulder injury in the Aggie win.
Calzada never played a down for Auburn after coming in with several people around the program expecting him to replace former Tiger quarterback Bo Nix. Looking at what Nix is doing at Oregon while Auburn at one point had to play fourth-string freshman quarterback Holden Geriner didn’t help Harsin’s chances. There’s a perception that Harsin and Nix didn’t get along, leading to Nix leaving. However, according to people close to Nix, there was mutual respect between the two, and Nix going had more to do with the quarterback wanting to take on a new challenge without the expectations of following in his father’s (former Auburn quarterback Patrick Nix) footsteps on the Plains.
Calzada not getting on the field is one of several issues that played a hand in how Harsin’s hire went from Christmas joy to Halloween nightmare, leaving running back coach and former Auburn All-American Carnell ‘Cadillac’ Williams as the interim coach.
“Auburn University has decided to make a change in the leadership of the Auburn University football program,” the school said in a press release, noticeably not mentioning Harsin by name. “President [Christopher] Roberts decided after a thorough review and evaluation of all aspects of the football program. Auburn will begin an immediate search for a coach that will return the Auburn program to a place where it consistently competes at the highest levels and represents the winning tradition of Auburn football.”
Auburn had a 28-3 lead against Mississippi State a week after the loss against the Aggies. Will Rogers led a stirring comeback in the second half that wound up being Nix’s last start as a Tiger.
Nix struggled with consistency; however, he was a viable starting quarterback that allowed Auburn to win games. Thrusting T.J. Finley into the role was Harsin’s only option. Finley had big moments, but the losses piled up, as did the what if’s. For instance, what if Auburn doesn’t make costly mistakes in play calling against South Carolina? Like calling a pass on 4th and 1 with an inexperienced quarterback, who stands at 6-foot-7, instead of a sneak. Such calls partly led to Harsin parting ways with offensive coordinator Mike Bobo. Harsin accepted recommendations to hire Bobo because of his experience as a head coach and his time in the SEC as an offensive coordinator. Disagreements between Harsin and Bobo on offensive philosophy led to Bobo’s time ending after one season.
Another set of what if’s happened at Harsin’s only Iron Bowl. It’s fair to ask how differently Harsin would be viewed if Tank Bigsby stays in bounds in the fourth quarter. Bryce Young went from watching his Heisman campaign end to an incredible comeback that helped him win the trophy and send Alabama to the national championship game. It’s difficult to imagine Harsin waking up on his birthday looking for a new job if Auburn manages to win an Iron Bowl where they were three-touchdown underdogs.
Harsin’s record at Auburn is terrible by Auburn’s high standards, but the 2021 offseason was worse. He fired Bobo and saw Derek Mason leave for Oklahoma State. Ire from fans mounted at the revelation that the former Vanderbilt coach took a $ 400,000-a-year pay cut to leave.
Rumors swirled around Mason’s departure while several Auburn players opted for the transfer portal. One incident came about during Auburn’s search for a defensive line coach that resulted in hiring former Tiger defensive lineman Jimmy Brumbaugh. According to sources, Mason and Harsin disagreed about the process of selecting the defensive line coach. Mason wanted more control of the situation since the D-line coach would be his direct report. Harsin as the head coach felt he should make the call with input from Mason.
Harsin and Mason had an interaction where Mason said “I’ve been a head coach in this league longer than you have.” Harsin replied, “Oh, you mean at Vanderbilt?” according to people familiar with the situation.
Harsin’s fortunes worsened when his replacement for Bobo left the program less than two months after getting hired at Auburn.
Austin Davis was a promising quarterbacks coach for the Seattle Seahawks in the NFL. He came with glowing recommendations from potential future Hall of Fame quarterback Russell Wilson and likely Hall of Fame head coach Pete Caroll. Davis resigned suddenly on January 31st citing personal reasons.
In one offseason, Harsin quickly lost three coordinators. Little did he know what was coming less than 48 hours after Davis left.
Anger arose amongst Auburn boosters when Harsin missed two key events while trying to find another offensive coordinator. Harsin sent his coaching staff to the Georgia High School coaching clinic, attended by Georgia head coach Kirby Smart and Alabama coach Nick Saban. But he didn’t go to the event because he was speaking with candidates to replace Davis as offensive coordinator.
Harsin also missed a charity event led by Bo Jackson. Some Auburn boosters took Harsin missing the coaching clinic and Jackson’s event as Harsin not willing to adapt to life in the SEC.
It’s no secret that Auburn supporters expect the Tigers to compete with Georgia and Alabama on the field. They also know wins can’t happen in the games unless Auburn can beat them and other SEC schools in recruiting. Harsin’s missing the coaching clinic indicated to fans that Harsin wasn’t committed to building relationships with high school coaches necessary to win in a demanding conference.
That reputation of being unable to recruit and build relationships in the SEC followed him throughout his stay at Auburn.
After Davis left, Harsin traveled to Mobile to support cornerback Roger McCreary’s efforts in the Senior Bowl. After practice, Harsin sat on a panel in downtown Mobile with Nick Saban hosted by ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit. He showed a sense of humor while delivering a message of hard work.
Harsin stayed for more than an hour after the fireside chat to greet fans. A funny moment came when a father, wearing an Auburn shirt, approached Harsin with his son, wearing Alabama gear. The young man asked if he could take a pic with Harsin even though he was wearing crimson and white. Harsin smiled and quipped, “I don’t see Saban anywhere around here. We can get you a shirt and teach you how to say ‘War Eagle’”
An Auburn booster, initially against Harsin’s hire by former athletic director Allen Greene, noticed the moment and how Harsin conducted himself at the event. “He might be figuring out what it takes to be the coach at Auburn,” the person told AL.com shortly after the program.
Less than 12 hours later, Harsin and his wife Kes saw their phones blowing up with text messages and phone calls while the pair were getting ready for their now-infamous vacation. Accusations swirled throughout the day, and Harsin’s job came into question. Former Tiger Lee Hunter was one of several players who posted complaints about Harsin on social media.
“I chose to leave Auburn because we got treated like we weren’t good enough and like dogs,” Hunter said on Instagram. Jay Gogue, Auburn’s outgoing president, told Harsin on Feb. 4 that the school would conduct a review of the football program. Harsin complied with the inquiry that lasted six days and reaffirmed his desire to remain as Auburn’s coach.
Replacing an offensive coordinator in February would’ve been arduous in even the best circumstances because of how late it was in the hiring cycle. Having to do it at the same time as a university-led inquiry that took nearly two weeks made it impossible.
Auburn should’ve looked into the complaints that surfaced on social media from players saying Harsin mistreated them. However, once Gogue made it public, unprompted no less, he made Harsin and Auburn a marriage of convenience.
GOODMAN: Bryan Harsin never had a shot
Harsin survived the inquiry, but he never stopped paying the price. He went on speaking engagements throughout the state and southeast during the recruiting dead period. Some power brokers were willing to give Harsin a second chance.
Harsin flew on noted donor Raymond Harbert’s private plane to an Auburn basketball game against Tennessee in Knoxville. During the speaking engagements for Auburn alums and supporters, he formed a relationship with basketball coach Bruce Pearl and baseball coach Butch Thompson. Harsin and Greene sat behind the Auburn bench next to Harbert at the Tennessee game.
Some saw this and Harsin doing things like attending Jimmy Rane’s golf tournament, Bo Jackson’s golf event and Bo Bikes Bama, and other events as signs that Harsin was learning Auburn’s ways. Others viewed him as a desperate man only looking to curry favor after an embarrassing public spanking.
His best way to help his standing was to win – and win big – on the field. That meant making the right decision at the quarterback position in a competition featuring Calzada, Finley, Oregon transfer Robby Ashford, and Geriner. Calzada spent most of spring camp taking limited reps because of the shoulder injury. Finley shined and continued to perform well through fall camp, which got him the nod as the starter.
Harsin’s defiant statements during July’s SEC Media Days enthused some fans but angered others who felt the former Boise State head coach was too arrogant.
“There was an inquiry,” Harsin said in July. “It was uncomfortable. It was unfounded. It presented an opportunity for people to personally attack me, my family, and also our program. And it didn’t work.”
Several supporters felt Harsin’s declaration was disrespectful and highlighted that Harsin would never conform. Greene announced his resignation on August 26th after Harsin’s salvo and less than 10 days before the season-opener against Mercer. Any goodwill Harsin gained from the talking season dinners and golf outings started eroding after the SEC media day press conference.
“I was starting to come around on him some before he went up there on that stage boasting and bragging like he’s won anything worthwhile at Auburn,” one prominent booster told AL.com. “He put a lot of unnecessary pressure on himself with that one. He’d done better to stay humble until he won some games and showed progress in recruiting. I’d felt sorry for him, but once he did that, I said, ‘he’d better win’.”
Any remaining job security vanished once Greene, who controversially hired Harsin, was now gone.
The season never panned out how Harsin hoped. Presumed starter Calzada never started a game for the Tigers, sliding to third string on the depth chart before electing for season-ending shoulder surgery. In his brief time at Auburn, Davis recruited Calzada out of the transfer portal to challenge Finley for the starting job. Eric Kiseau, Davis’ replacement as offensive coordinator, didn’t have the best relationship with Calzada, according to sources around the program.
Finley suffered a shoulder injury himself in a 29-point loss against Penn State and has only played in one series since, which resulted in a fumble against Ole Miss.
Ashford, the Oregon transfer, provided the most hope for Auburn but couldn’t deliver enough wins for Harsin to save his job. Ashford’s play – and the feeling that the team hadn’t completely given up on Harsin – led some to believe Harsin would get to finish the season as the program’s head coach.
A logical time to fire Harsin would’ve been after the Ole Miss game since the team had the following week off. However, Harsin continued on the recruiting trail during the bye week with stops in Atlanta, Kansas, Birmingham, and Mobile to see players and visit coaches. He kept showing up hoping to finish the season with victories on the field and in recruiting.
Another listless performance against Arkansas and four players announcing intentions to enter the transfer portal a few days before the loss removed any doubt for Auburn that it was time to make a change. President Roberts opted to fire Harsin on Monday as the school finalized a deal with new athletic director John Cohen.
Cohen begins the job with Auburn heading to play his former school Mississippi State hoping to snap a four-game losing streak. Harsin is rumored to be a candidate for Colorado and Arizona State. And people around him believe that he wants to get back into coaching to prove he’s more like the guy who was 69-19 at his alma mater Boise State rather than his 9-12 record at Auburn.
Nubyjas Wilborn covers Auburn for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @nwilborn19