Auburn fires Bryan Harsin: Tigers awkwardly end unsuccessful sophomore coaching tenure

Auburn fired coach Bryan Harsin Monday after a 41-27 loss to Arkansas, ending an awkward and unsuccessful tenure on the Plains. Harsin was relieved of his duties as the Tigers fell two games below the .500 mark to 3-5 this season, with the program giving up 10 of its last 13 games and nine of its last 10 against Power Five opponents coming back to last season.

“Auburn University has decided to change the direction of the Auburn University football program,” the school said in a statement. “President Christopher Roberts made the decision after a thorough review and evaluation of all aspects of the football program. Auburn will begin an immediate search for a coach who will return Auburn’s program to a place where it consistently competes at the highest high level and represents the winning tradition that is Auburn football.”

Harsin is 9-12 (4-9 SEC) in less than two full seasons on the job after taking over for Gus Malzahn following the 2020 campaign. Malzahn was 67-35 (38-27 SEC) in eight seasons at Auburn.

Harsin entered the 2022 season in one of the hottest seats in the country despite only spending a year on the Plains. After a 6-7 start to 2021 that ended in five straight losses, the school power brokers attempted a coup to oust Harsin from his post. Frustrations over the rotation of the roster and coaching staff, along with Harsin’s failure to sign a single player on the traditional National Signing Day in February, kicked off a week-long saga over the which powerful people associated with Auburn’s athletic department allegedly sought to fire Harsin for cause. The move would have allowed those in power to avoid paying a buyout of around $15 million.

The effort ultimately failed. Auburn retained Harsin for a second season, although he was by no means on solid ground. In August, athletic director Allen Greene, who was instrumental in hiring Harsin, announced he was stepping down from the program. With the Tigers needing to hire a new AD, Harsin’s survival became even more precarious.

Auburn is in the process of hiring Mississippi State AD John Cohen to the same role, according to multiple reports.

Harsin did little to ease the growing tension in Year 2. Auburn beat San Jose State by just eight points in Week 2, a victory that preceded a blowout loss at home vs. Penn State and a wild overtime win over Missouri on a no-go touchback. The Tigers followed that up with back-to-back losses to LSU, Georgia, Ole Miss and Arkansas to send Harsin packing his bags.

A former quarterback Boise State, Harsin, 45, arrived at Auburn after a successful run at his alma mater where he went 69-19 and won three Mountain West titles. His move to Boise came after a season as a coach at Arkansas State where he went 7-5 in 2013 and won a share of the Sun Belt Championship.

The product had regressed to an unsustainable level

When Malzahn coached the Tigers, they were at least competitive. At best, they were national title contenders. At worst, they were a mid-pack SEC team. This floor has been falling like a rock for over a year under Harsin. It’s Auburn’s worst team since the 2012 team that went 3-9 overall and 0-8 in the SEC. The defense is 11th in the SEC in defensive yards per play (5.74), total defense (407.1 YPG) and scoring defense (29.9 PPG).

The offense lacks explosiveness, hasn’t developed a go-to receiver, can’t get Tank Bigsby back on the ball in key situations, and struggles to consistently protect the quarterback. As a result, the Tigers are averaging just 22.9 points per game and have converted just 37.38% of their third opportunities.

Meanwhile, the lack of effort in the recruiting game has been staggering. The Tigers finished ninth in the SEC in 247Sports team recruiting rankings last cycle, seventh in 2021 and are currently 12th in the conference rankings for 2023. That’s unacceptable in a place like Auburn with so many tradition, passion and available resources.

Product of the new era

In previous eras, it might seem crazy to fire a coach before he had even completed his second season. It’s a very different time, though. “Curriculum building” is no longer about hitting the high school recruiting track hard. This is to manage the comings and goings of the transfer portal. It is about exposure in the world of name, image and likeness. Harsin did none of that.

More than two dozen players have left the program through the transfer portal since the start of last season, including last week when several players – including receiver Landen King – jumped ship. At the same time, he hasn’t added many hard-hitting players to the program. The most notable inbound transfer of the past offseason was quarterback Zach Calzada, but he hasn’t played for a moment this season after suffering a shoulder injury. Additionally, the lack of star power across the board, coupled with Auburn’s absence from the national spotlight, didn’t help matters. It’s also on Harsin.

Timing is all on the administrative side

It was somewhat surprising that Harsin wasn’t fired after the 48-34 loss to Ole Miss on Oct. 15, given the Tigers were heading into the bye week. It’s clear now, however, that Roberts was waiting to have all of his ducks in a row before putting his signature on the Athletic Department’s future.

The reports that surfaced that Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen is in talks to take over in the same role on The Plains are an integral part of that process. It’s unclear whether Cohen was involved in the decision to fire Harsin, but it’s clear that Roberts — who began serving as Auburn’s president in May — wants to rip the bandage off and start fresh.

That said, it was not necessary to appear before this search for coaching. It was speculated nationwide that Auburn’s job would open at some point, so it’s not like coaches, agents and players were surprised by the news. Additionally, Auburn likely won’t have the same slate of candidates as schools with current vacancies, namely Nebraska and Wisconsin.

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