As university leaders scrutinize the struggles of first-year Auburn football coach Bryan Harsin amid an exodus of players and coaches, he told ESPN he’s committed to the school for the long term.
“I’m the Auburn coach, and that’s how I’m operating every day,” Harsin told ESPN in a lengthy interview late Thursday night. “I want this thing to work, and I’ve told our players and told everybody else there is no Plan B. I’m not planning on going anywhere. This was and is the job. That’s why I left the one I was in, to come here and make this place a championship program and leave it better than I found it.”
Harsin, who is on vacation, said he hasn’t had any conversations with Auburn leaders that would suggest he won’t be back for the 2022 season.
As he works to finalize the reconstruction of his staff, university officials are examining the factors that led to 20 players and five assistant coaches leaving the school, sources told ESPN.
Upper administration officials at Auburn, including executive vice president and chief operating officer Lt. Gen. Ron Burgess, have conducted interviews with some of the people exiting, sources told ESPN. At the root of the inquiry, sources told ESPN, is the overall volatility in the program and Harsin’s treatment of players and assistant coaches.
“It all gets back to people and the way they were mistreated,” one source told ESPN. “There’s a reason so many people have left. You just don’t see that many people at one school leave, not in one year. It’s a mess.”
Burgess and athletic director Allen Greene did not respond to requests seeking comment.
Lee Hunter, who transferred from Auburn to UCF earlier this offseason, posted on Instagram on Friday that “Coach Harsin has the true mindset for a winner but has a terrible mindset as a person.” He also posted “the reason I chose to leave auburn because we got treated like we wasn’t good enough and like dogs.”
Harsin bristled at any suggestion that he mistreated coaches or players and pointed out that there were different reasons for coaches and players leaving the program. He listed everything from a coach landing another job or leaving for personal reasons, to a coach simply not living up to expectations, to a player leaving because he was a distraction to the team or wooed by another school.
“Any attack on my character is bulls—,” Harsin said. “None of that is who I am.”
Said one source to ESPN: “There are some kids in the locker room who do like him. If they fire him, what are we going to do? It would set Auburn back two or three years.”
We didn’t need a best friend we needed a coach … that’s what we had
— Chandler Wooten (@ItsMeWootang) February 4, 2022
Harsin said he’s struggled to find clarity from school officials on the contract numbers for his open offensive coordinator job — one of three coordinator changes on his staff during his first season.
“This is where I want to be. This is what I want to do,” Harsin said. “That’s why I came here. I didn’t come here to fail. We’ve got to build something, and right now I feel like when you hear some of these things, that there’s a lot of things building against me.
“Certainly, I’m the right man for the job. There’s no doubt about it. No one is going to have a better plan than I do, but we’ve got to change some things. This place is not going to be a championship program until we change some things. You’ve got to let the head coach be the head coach and support him.”
Auburn went 6-7 in Harsin’s first season, but finished the season with a five-game losing streak that included a blowout loss to Texas A&M, a collapse against Mississippi State and a stunning loss to South Carolina.
The cost to buy out Harsin’s contract with Auburn, if he’s fired without cause, is $18.3 million, as 70% of the money for the five remaining years of his contract is guaranteed.
Harsin arrived after the 2020 season from Boise State, where he won more than 78% of his games over seven years. But the transition since arriving at Auburn hasn’t been seamless, as there have been challenges in building a staff and maintaining the roster.
People affiliated with the legal affairs of Auburn have been reaching out for answers as to why there’s been a staff exodus and why there’s been so many issues within the program, a source told ESPN.
“It was almost like they were building a case beforehand,” another source, who is close to Auburn officials, told ESPN.
Auburn has long been among the SEC’s least patient football programs, as evidenced by firing former coach Gene Chizik in 2012 — just two seasons after winning the national title. The school owed nearly $21.5 million to former coach Gus Malzahn after firing him last year when Auburn went 6-4 in the regular season.
And this examination of Harsin comes at a time when this school is amid presidential transition and Greene is the rare Power 5 athletic director in the final year of a five-year contract.
Auburn athletics decisions often are made at levels above the school’s athletics department, and that notion is only accentuated with Greene’s contract status. Harsin’s hire was notable for Greene being able to run a traditional search, which included fending off a push from outside the athletic department for interim coach Kevin Steele.
“The same guys who didn’t want to hire [Harsin] now want to fire him,” a source told ESPN.
Auburn’s Board of Trustees, in the midst of two days of scheduled meetings, is not scheduled to discuss Harsin’s future as of now, according to the public agenda.
Harsin fired offensive coordinator Mike Bobo following the regular season. Defensive coordinator Derek Mason left for the same position at Oklahoma State. Bobo’s successor, former Seattle Seahawks assistant Austin Davis, resigned for personal reasons earlier this week after being hired six weeks ago.
Jeff Schmedding, who was recently promoted to defensive coordinator to replace Mason, took to Twitter on Friday to support Harsin.
“@CoachHarsin and this staff are building men of character,” Schmedding posted. “Block the noise and work, hard work. #WarEagle.”
— Jeff Schmedding (@SchmeddingJeff) February 4, 2022
Twenty players have left the program since the end of Harsin’s first season. Among them was quarterback Bo Nix, a heralded legacy recruit who left for Oregon. Along with the three coordinators, Harsin lost two more assistants. Defensive line coach Nick Eason left for Clemson, and Harsin fired receivers coach Cornelius Williams during the season.
“It was a total disconnect,” a source said.
As with most any coaching transition, there’s bound to be attrition among players and coaches during the first season. Harsin said he emphasized to the players who’ve stayed that he’s not looking to leave, at least not on his accord.
There were reports after the season connecting Harsin to the head coaching searches at Oregon and Washington, but he told ESPN he never talked to those schools.
“I will tell you what I told our players: I didn’t come to Auburn to leave,” Harsin said. “It’s a top-5 job in the country. You’re in the SEC and have the resources to be successful. I didn’t come to Auburn to take another job. I would have stayed right where I was at. That’s what I told (linebacker) Owen Pappoe when he asked me about it.
“That’s what I want people to know about me. I’m loyal and am going to do what I can to make this place the very best it can be, and all I want is that same support.”
ESPN reporter Mark Schlabach and Adam Rittenberg contributed to this report.