Defeating Auburn's kangaroo court doesn't solve Bryan Harsin's stark reality | Opinion

Blake Toppmeyer
USA TODAY NETWORK
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Auburn announced Friday that it will retain football coach Bryan Harsin, but here’s the part it left unsaid: The embattled coach whose tenure subsists today can be fired more easily nine months from now.

Harsin survived a university inquiry, and that will be celebrated as a victory by those who like to see someone stand up to the establishment and prevail.

But here’s the harsh reality: This is Harsin’s first victory since before Halloween.

Harsin’s triumph over Auburn’s kangaroo court doesn’t change the fact that his program will take a five-game losing streak into this season. It doesn’t change that Auburn lost more than it gained in the transfer portal. It doesn’t change that Harsin must hire a coordinator for the third time since November. And it doesn’t change Auburn’s lack of recruiting momentum.

In fact, this investigation and the public criticism of Harsin’s leadership style by some former players could further hamper recruiting.

OPINION:  Auburn's Bryan Harsin mess will end in one of two ways, writes Blake Toppmeyer

Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin.

The best reasons for retaining Harsin were twofold:

  • Ousting Harsin now would be expensive, unless Auburn fired him for cause under the terms of his contract. Evidently, AU’s investigation did not uncover cause, and Harsin’s buyout is more than $18 million. That would have come on top of Auburn’s $21.45 million buyout to Gus Malzahn, whom it fired in December 2020.
  • Firing Harsin in mid-February, less than 14 months into his tenure, would not position Auburn to generate the fullest crop of potential replacement candidates.

Note that neither of those are reasons to be encouraged about the direction of the program. Rather, they’re reasons to delay a firing.

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PRESIDENT'S LETTER:Read Auburn president Jay Gogue's letter on investigation of football coach Bryan Harsin

This carries some shades of LSU.

Les Miles’ fate hung in the balance toward the end of the 2015 season. As Sports Illustrated detailed years later, LSU considered firing Miles that November as step one of an attempt to install Jimbo Fisher as coach. The plan didn’t reach fruition, and Miles received a reprieve after LSU beat Texas A&M in its regular-season finale.

Miles was fired 10 months later after LSU started its subsequent season 2-2. Auburn delivered the knockout blow, defeating LSU 18-13 on Sept. 24, 2016, but, to an extent, the die had been cast in 2015, with Miles’ firing merely delayed by several months.

Auburn is in the midst of a university leadership change. The school recently named engineering dean Chris Roberts as its next university president. Roberts will begin his new post in May. He'll replace Jay Gogue, who is retiring.  

On one hand, that could work in Harsin’s favor: Chalk up this university investigation to a failed fishing expedition by an outgoing leader.

However, new university leaders often can become itchy to install their own coach.

Also, athletics director Allen Greene is working under a contract that expires in January. Greene hired Harsin. If Greene departs or does not receive a contract extension, that would seem to put Harsin on shakier footing, if that’s even possible.

So, what does a sustainable path forward look like for Harsin?

For starters, he must better attract and retain talented players and coaches. The university announcing its investigation into Harsin did him no favors here. The probe going public manufactured more reason to have pause about joining Harsin’s program.

Harsin also must become a unifying force, rather than a divisive one. Harsin stood tall against this investigation, and that’s fine, but when it comes to his players, he must unite them and show empathy for their concerns. Don’t let Auburn’s failed quest to throw Harsin overboard obfuscate the issues raised last week by people who were part of the program in 2021. Disgruntled players are nothing new on a college football roster, particularly with a new coach, and some players stated support for Harsin. But this divisiveness cannot continue.

Auburn defensive back Smoke Monday pulls the facemask of LSU wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. during a 2019 game.

I found former Auburn defensive back Smoke Monday’s critique of Harsin particularly interesting.

Unlike others who criticized Harsin, Monday didn’t transfer. He completed the 2021 season, including playing in Auburn’s bowl game. Now, he’s NFL-bound. Conceivably, he has no ax to grind. Monday wrote on Instagram that Harsin is “a hell of a coach” but added that Harsin doesn’t do enough to relate with athletes who “come from nothing.”

“We need people who didn’t grow up the way we grew up to help us (along) the way,” Monday wrote, “and that was something Harsin didn’t do.”

That doesn’t come off as a petty grievance. That sounds like honest feedback. Harsin should take it to heart.

Mostly, though, Harsin’s sustainable path forward boils down to the same simplicity facing any coach in a high-pressure job. He must win.

If he doesn’t do more of that this season, then all Friday’s announcement did was delay his exit.

Follow Blake Toppmeyer on Twitter @btoppmeyer.

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