Harsin still ‘fighting’ for Auburn despite adversity

  • College football reporter
  • Joined ESPN.com in 2007
  • Graduate of the University of Tennessee

AUBURN, Ala. — Bryan Harsin passionately doubled down on his commitment to being Auburn’s head football coach and to his players Thursday despite his future seemingly hanging in the balance nearly three months ago amid a university-directed inquiry into the program.

“The simplest, strongest statement to come out of all this was what I said at the time, that it was bulls—, and I still feel like that,” Harsin told ESPN during a lengthy interview.

“Everything we were going through — these players, this program, the attacks on my character and my family — was bulls—. Let’s be clear on that. We’re not folding our tent whatsoever. We’ll fight, and we’ll keep doing it. That’s not going to change. We’re fighting for the kids on this team. They’re worth fighting for.”

Auburn announced on Feb. 11 that Harsin would return as coach after he remained in limbo for eight days as news surfaced that the university had been scrutinizing the exodus of players and assistant coaches that accompanied Harsin’s first season at Auburn, which ended with a 6-7 record and five straight losses.

Auburn lost its regular-season finale to rival Alabama at home in a 24-22 heartbreaker in four overtimes. The Tigers led 10-0 entering the fourth quarter, but the Crimson Tide drove 97 yards for a touchdown in the final seconds to force the first overtime and ultimately win the game.

Harsin, asked if there would have been any question about his coaching future had Auburn held onto that fourth-quarter lead against Alabama, smiled and said, “Yeah, good question. I don’t know.”

Even as the inquiry was ongoing and reports swirled about Harsin’s job status, he said he nor his agent ever had any talks with Auburn about a financial settlement. Harsin would have been owed an $18.3 million buyout, a figure that only drops to the $15 million range if he were to be fired following the 2022 season without cause.

“I said it then and say it now,” Harsin said. “I wasn’t going to turn and run just because we faced some adversity. I was going to fight like hell for these players because they deserve it. I want people to know that, whoever you are, that these players at Auburn deserve your support. These guys bust their ass.”

Harsin said the most heartening part of those eight days while he waited for Auburn to finish its inquiry was the way his family, along with players and former colleagues, reached out to offer their support. In fact, senior offensive lineman Nick Brahms set up a meeting with Auburn board of trustee members. Harsin said he also heard from Mack Brown and Chris Petersen, among others.

“Let me say this: I never thought I wasn’t coming back, never,” Harsin said. “Never in my mind did I think I wouldn’t be sitting there laying out the plan for our players moving forward in that next meeting.”

Some outgoing players took to social media to criticize Harsin for not relating well to players. Former defensive lineman Lee Hunter, who transferred to UCF, posted on his Instagram that he left “because we got treated like we wasn’t good enough and like dogs.” However, the majority of players, even some of the ones leaving for the NFL, supported Harsin publicly.

“When you’re on a team, there’s going to be a lot of opinions about things you do, and that’s OK,” Harsin said. “What you try to do is get everybody in alignment with the direction of where we want to go with this program. That’s the challenge as coach. To me, I felt like we had a lot more positive than negative.”

Harsin, who admittedly remains angry over the toll the whole ordeal took on his family, said those inside the Auburn football program rallied around each other this spring and that the vibe among coaches and players is the best it’s been since he took the job in December 2020.

“Something else I want to make clear is that people are underestimating this football team, and that’s one thing I’ve told our players,” Harsin said. “When they say I can’t recruit and can’t do all these things, they’re underestimating the players on this team. These are our players. We believe in them, and we know talent. These guys busted their asses this spring. It felt like the teams I’ve coached before.”

Harsin brought in three new assistant coaches, including former Auburn player Jimmy Brumbaugh as defensive line coach and promoted Eric Kiesau to offensive coordinator and Jeff Schmedding to defensive coordinator. Harsin believes all the uncertainty from February actually became a rallying point for the players and coaches on this team.

“Coming out of this, we’re stronger,” Harsin said. “We’re in a much better position than we were 16 months ago. Our team, the leadership, the chemistry, the cohesiveness — all those things — have really shown up over the past two or three months.”

Harsin said he was never given any clarification on what precipitated the inquiry which ended with Auburn president Jay Gogue saying that “the process, which was never individual-or-outcome-specific, did not yield information that should change the status of our coaching staff or football program.”

Gogue announced his retirement last June, as Chris Roberts is set to take over as Auburn’s president on May 16.

Harsin, while not getting into specifics, said he had productive conversations with Gogue and others in Auburn’s administration following the inquiry. Asked if the proper alignment was in place at Auburn, both internally and externally, to win at a championship level, Harsin responded, “I know this: I know this place wants to win, and I know the people who support it want to win. When I go out into the community or I do events, every single person I see, they love Auburn, love what we’re doing and appreciate what we’re doing.

“So I don’t get to hear the negative face to face. I hear the positive. I hear the support. I hear, ‘Hey, we’re going to get where we all want to be.'”

Harsin said he feels better about the direction of the Tigers’ recruiting after getting the inquiry behind him and that the new NIL rules should help them. Auburn’s 2022 signing class was ranked 18th nationally by ESPN, although the Tigers are not ranked in the top 25 of ESPN’s latest 2023 class rankings.

“I think this, that when guys step on our campus, they see who we are and what we’re about,” Harsin said. “They see that some of those things people say about our program, that they’re not true and have nothing to do with anything we’re about. I think a lot of those families and players see right through that and know where we’re going.”

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