Another coaching saga at Auburn appears to be over. For now at least. According to ESPN, Bryan Harsin will return as the team’s coach for 2022. Harsin’s tenure after just one season with the Tigers appeared to be on shaky ground after reports emerged the school was conducting an inquiry into the program. The inquiry started as a result of a tumultuous offseason, which included nearly 20 players entering the transfer portal and significant staff turnover. However, that inquiry reportedly did not produce enough evidence or reason to fire Harsin for cause, which means he will return to the Plains in ’22.
Although Harsin returns, many questions remain about the future of this program going into 2022. Let’s take a look at some of the key questions surrounding this situation and what’s next:
How Did Auburn and Harsin Get Into This Position?
In order to understand why Harsin’s job was in question just a year into his hire, you have to go back to his hire. After an extended search and a behind-the-scenes power struggle, Harsin was hired after a successful tenure at Boise State. But Harsin had no SEC experience prior to arriving on the Plains and wasn’t necessarily the most popular pick. After a 6-2 start, the Tigers lost their last five games, including the Iron Bowl to Alabama and a 17-13 defeat to Houston in the Birmingham Bowl.
In addition to the losing streak and disappointing close to the season, Auburn’s roster has been hit by defections, including quarterback Bo Nix transferring to Oregon. Also, the staff has seen a significant amount of turnover, including a receivers coach change in late September, defensive coordinator Derek Mason leaving for Oklahoma State, and offensive coordinator Austin Davis resigning after spending less than six weeks on the job. Finally, recruiting – always extra important in the SEC – didn’t go well for Harsin. According to the 247Sports Composite, the Tigers signed the No. 19 class and inked 10 four- or five-star recruits. Rivals Georgia and Alabama both ranked inside the top three and combined for 48 four- or five-star recruits.
The short version: Harsin wasn’t the popular pick by the power brokers after a crazy search, might be a bad fit at the school, had a disappointing 6-7 debut, was hit by departures in the player and coach ranks and struggled to recruit.
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Perhaps this decision is simply prolonging the inevitable. Auburn isn’t happy with Harsin but paying a full buyout for a coach after one year wasn’t palatable. So for now, this relationship will continue on shaky ground. Harsin has to do a better job mending some of the off-field relationships and stop the departures to the transfer portal (or at least bring in some replacements to restock the roster).
Filling out a coaching staff under the circumstances might also be a challenge. Harsin promoted Jeff Schmedding to defensive coordinator – a former Boise State assistant – but will have to address the offensive position. Of course, Harsin is likely to play a key role in calling the plays each week, so it’s not as crucial as filling the defensive spot.
Recruiting has to improve – quickly. The state of Alabama is loaded with talent in 2023, so Harsin has to prove he can win some battles against Alabama, Georgia and Clemson.
Can Harsin Survive Long-Term at Auburn?
We’ll see. Considering how public this saga was, recruiting certainly got a lot tougher for a coach who may not have more than a year to prove he can get it done. Even before this saga, Auburn was projected by most to finish near the bottom of the SEC West. Quarterback concerns top the list of priorities for Harsin this offseason, and the defense lost a couple of key players, including linebacker Zakoby McClain, cornerback Roger McCreary and safety Smoke Monday.
Harsin will enter 2022 squarely on the hot seat, so a path to sticking around for ’23 starts right away with winning games and improving recruiting. Otherwise, this decision is really just prolonging the inevitable and Auburn will be looking for its next head coach after next season, if not sooner.