A saga that spanned a little more than a week officially came to a close Friday afternoon, as Auburn announced its decision to retain Bryan Harsin as football coach moving forward.
Following an eight-day episode that threw Harsin’s future with the program, after just one season, into flux due to a university investigation into the football program, Auburn president Jay Gogue released a statement Friday announcing the end of the school’s inquiry and the return of Harsin for the 2022 season. In Gogue’s statement, the outgoing president offered some explanation about what transpired over the first week-plus of February as well as some insight into the findings of the school’s investigation.
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“I am pleased to report that the evaluation of concerns raised regarding our football program is complete,” Gogue said. “I am equally pleased to confirm that Bryan Harsin remains our head football coach. As an institution of higher education, Auburn will always take the action necessary to ensure the well-being of its students, faculty, and staff. Recently, individuals raised concerns about my administration about the football program. The nature of these concerns compelled a fact-finding review. To do nothing would have been an abdication of the university’s responsibilities.
“Over the past week, my administration conducted that review. It included meetings and interviews with current and former football coaching and administrative staff, numerous players, university administrators and other individuals who offered perspective on the issues that had been raised. To be clear, this process, which was never individual- or outcome-specific, did not yield information that should change the status of our coaching staff or football program.”
Harsin’s status with the Tigers was thrown into doubt last Thursday when reports surfaced about his immediate future with the program after less than 14 months as head coach. Concerns arose following a 6-7 campaign in 2021 that saw Auburn start 6-2 and in the thick of the SEC West race before a five-game losing streak to end the season. It was Auburn’s first losing season since 2012.
Along with the losing record and tailspin to end the year, which included blown double-digit leads in losses to Mississippi State, South Carolina and Alabama, the program experienced an inordinate amount of roster and staff turnover, as well as a disappointing finish to the 2022 recruiting cycle.
Eighteen players entered the transfer portal since the end of the regular season, including three-year starting quarterback Bo Nix and leading receiver Kobe Hudson, who said he was dismissed from the team before he hit the portal. Auburn, which had a strong close to the early signing period in December, did not add any more players to its class on National Signing Day earlier this month and finished with the eighth-rated class in the SEC.
Since Harsin took over as head coach on Dec. 22, 2020, six assistants have also left the program, including both coordinators. Mike Bobo was fired at the end of the regular season, and his replacement, Austin Davis, resigned just 43 days after being named offensive coordinator. Defensive coordinator Derek Mason also stepped down, only to take the same position at Oklahoma State for $400,000 less per year.
Amid all that, the university launched a probe into the program due to concerns about how Harsin handled his duties and treated some players and staff members within it. Some former players took to social media to express their concerns about how they were treated last season under Harsin, while other players — both former and current — vehemently defended their coach. Gogue said a week ago at the Auburn Board of Trustees meeting that he was aware of the speculation and was working to “separate fact from fiction” while working to quickly assess Harsin’s future with the program.
Harsin would have been owed an $18.55 million buyout from Auburn had he been fired without cause. The school would not have owed him anything had it found justified cause to terminate him.
While Auburn retained outside counsel from the law firm Lightfoot, Franklin and White to help handle the investigation, Gogue said in his statement Friday that the decisions to look into the program and to ultimately retain Harsin as head coach were solely his as president of the university . The Board of Trustees, he added, “played no role in the fact-finding or decision-making process.”
“Specific to Coach Harsin, he was completely cooperative throughout this inquiry and is equally eager to consider and address any identified issues head-on. My most recent conversations with Coach Harsin have me as convinced as ever in his commitment to our student-athletes’ on- and off-field success and his vision for our program. We are equally committed to providing him the necessary means to achieve that goal.
“Unfortunately, social media fueled wild speculation, substantial misinformation and unfair attacks on good Auburn people. A feeding frenzy resulted that was beyond anyone’s control. We regret the concern, anger, frustration or hurt that this caused any member of the Auburn family.
“I know the past week has been an incredibly trying time for Coach Harsin, his family and many others. Personal and intentional attacks have been publicly levied, almost all of them anonymous, without regard for their resulting, real-world ramifications. Auburn never has — and I hope never will — legitimize reckless rumors or innuendo with public comment. While Coach Harsin understands some level of public criticism comes with the job, what he and his family have endured this past week was beyond the pale. We regret the concern and anxiety this situation caused the Harsin family and the others involved.”
Much of the saga unfolded while Harsin was out of town on vacation, as he defended himself in an interview with ESPN late last Thursday night and was adamant that he wanted to remain Auburn’s coach and believed in his vision for the program. The university released a statement Monday that it was “judiciously” collecting information from various perspectives to understand any issues. Harsin returned to Auburn on Wednesday and then made an appearance in Birmingham on Thursday morning for a previously scheduled meeting with league coaches but declined to comment as he left the building.
“This has been one of the hardest weeks of my career and it had nothing to do with my coaching ability,” Harsin said in a statement Friday. “The personal attacks on me and my family went too far and were without justification. Their resolve through this experience has been incredible but also completely expected. We saw and felt the worst of the worst in some people. Fortunately, we also saw the best of the best in others and we will always be grateful for the support of so many through a very difficult time – our players, staff, the Auburn family, and many others.
“I know who I am as a husband, father and football coach and fully cooperated throughout this process. I believe that every challenge in life is an opportunity to grow and learn. This is no different. Every day we’re not moving forward together is a step in the wrong direction. In order for us to take the Auburn program where we all want it to go we must, at all levels, commit to each other and this great university that we all love. I’m confident we can get there under the leadership of Dr. Gogue, incoming President Roberts, Allen Greene, and our Board of Trustees.
“I’m proud to be your head coach and appreciate the opportunity to lead the incredible group of young men in our locker room.”
With the investigation complete and the situation within Auburn’s football program resolved, Harsin will begin on Year 2 of his six-year contract as head coach. The team is in the middle of winter workouts, with spring practice a little more than a month away.
“Let me be clear — our university, the administration and the entire Board of Trustees stand behind Coach Harsin and are ready to help him succeed as the leader of our football program,” Gogue said. “It is my hope and expectation that the entire Auburn Family will join us in uniting behind Coach Harsin. With that support, I have no doubt that Auburn Football’s best days are ahead.
“Every man and woman who bleeds orange and blue is treasured at Auburn. While families quarrel and disagree from time to time, we end up remembering what brings us together as one – a love for our great university. Our university has never been stronger whether it be academics, student achievement, financial stability and, yes, athletics. We applaud everyone who provides dedication, loyalty and hard work to make Auburn the truly great university it is today.”
Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.