Auburn University announced Friday that head football coach Bryan Harsin is returning after it completed a university-directed inquiry into the program.
Harsin had been in limbo for the past eight days as news surfaced that the school has been scrutinizing the exodus of coaches and players that accompanied his rocky first season as the Tigers' coach.
Last Friday, outgoing school president Jay Gogue declared that the school was attempting to make an "appropriate decision" on Harsin's future. Harsin left on Feb. 3 for a previously scheduled vacation and was out of the country until Wednesday. Gouge announced his retirement last June, and the school recently announced president Chris Roberts will take over for Gouge on May 16.
"I am pleased to report that the evaluation of concerns raised regarding our football program is complete," Gouge said in a prepared statement. "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 to 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."
Sources told ESPN that Harsin met with officials running the school's inquiry on Wednesday night before attending the SEC head coaches meeting on Thursday in Birmingham, Alabama, at the league office. Harsin's meeting with school officials included speaking with Henry Gimenez, the lawyer specializing in the collegiate sports space from the Birmingham-based firm Lightfoot, Franklin and White. Sources have told ESPN that Gimenez has been a key part of the outside counsel assisting Auburn's inquiry.
After arriving at his vacation destination Feb. 3, Harsin told ESPN late that night that he'd been given no direct indication from university officials his job was in danger after a report surfaced that his future was in question. Sources told ESPN that administrative officials, including executive vice president and chief operating officer Lt. Gen. Ron Burgess, had been conducting interviews with some of the people leaving the program.
"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 released 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."
At the root of the inquiry, sources said, was the overall volatility in the program and Harsin's treatment of players and assistant coaches. Auburn closed the 2021 season on a five-game losing streak, and after finishing 17th nationally (eighth in the SEC) in ESPN's early signing day rankings in December, the Tigers didn't sign any players in the February signing period.
"This is where I want to be. This is what I want to do," Harsin told ESPN last week. "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."
Sources told ESPN that the school was looking into whether there was reason to fire Harsin for cause. According to his contract, he would have been owed $18.3 million or 70% of the remaining five years on his deal if he were fired without cause. Half that money -- $9.15 million -- would have been due in 30 days, the other half coming in four quarterly payments that would start on July 15.
Even if Harsin were to be fired without cause following the 2022 season, Auburn would still owe him a ton of money -- nearly $15 million.
Harsin was resolute last week when speaking to ESPN and committed to carrying on at Auburn despite all the scrutiny. A firing for cause would have likely ended up in a protracted and thorny legal battle and potentially exposed Auburn officials to the discovery process.
"Any attack on my character is bulls---," Harsin said. "None of that is who I am."
Auburn players, both current and past, took to social media last week to weigh in on Harsin. He received passionate support from several players, some of whom said he was getting rid of "cancers" on the team. Former linebacker Chandler Wooten, a team captain, said Harsin was trying to establish a culture change and accused some of his teammates of being "soft." Wooten told Auburn Live that it was "some bulls--- to me" about Harsin not caring about players.
Other players accused Harsin of not relating well to players. Former defensive lineman Lee Hunter, who transferred to UCF, said on his Instagram account that Harsin had the "true mindset for a winner but has a terrible mindset as a person" and added that players were treated "like dogs."
Sources told ESPN the actions of school officials and lawyers indicated they were digging for information on Harsin. School officials interviewed departed players and coaches to dig deeper into why 20 players and five assistant coaches had left. "It was almost like they were building a case beforehand," a source told ESPN.
"Specific to Coach Harsin, he was completely cooperative throughout this inquiry and is equally eager to consider and address any identified issues head-on," Gouge said in Friday's statement. "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."
In firing former coach Gus Malzahn following the 2020 season, Auburn paid him $21.45 million in buyout money. That's after giving him a seven-year, $49 million deal following the 2017 season, when the Tigers played in the SEC championship game. Had Auburn paid Harsin's full buyout, the school would have committed nearly $40 million to head coaches not to coach in the past 14 months, an astounding amount of money in a space where exorbitant buyouts have become normalized.
Sources familiar with the situation told ESPN that athletic director Allen Greene was not a significant presence in the inquiry of Harsin. Greene has nearly 11 months remaining on his five-year contract, as he's the rare major college athletic director to be in the final year of his contract. It's even more rare for a major college athletic director to have little say in the fate of a coach, as Greene didn't have significant input on the firing of Malzahn after the 2020 season, sources told ESPN.
The hiring of Harsin in December 2020 provided a victory for Greene, as it showed that some of the power had been wrestled from the boosters and trustees and back to the athletic department. (Some prominent boosters had favored former defensive coordinator Kevin Steele as Malzahn's replacement.)
But after Harsin's 6-7 season, which concluded with a five-game losing streak, the boosters appeared to have wrestled control back. Along with the losing, Harsin fired veteran offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, while veteran defensive coordinator Derek Mason left for Oklahoma State. Another Harsin offensive coordinator hire lasted only a few weeks, as Austin Davis, who arrived from the Seahawks, stepped down for personal reasons on Jan. 31 after being hired on Dec. 18.
Harsin then felt undercut by university administration while trying to get answers on salaries for his staff positions, particularly for Davis' replacement. Before leaving for vacation, Harsin asked Greene for some clarity on what the holdup was with the assistants' contracts.
Sources also told ESPN that Gouge informed Harsin before his vacation that it wasn't a good idea to meet with the board of trustees about the assistant coaches' contracts.
Harsin just wanted to "know the game, what's being played here?" a source told ESPN, and couldn't get any answers from Greene, who "really didn't know his own situation."
Harsin arrived at Auburn having won 78% of his games at Boise State in seven seasons. He'd spent most of his career there as a player, assistant and head coach, as his only other FBS college experience came from two seasons as a Texas assistant and one season as the Arkansas State head coach.
"I know who I am as a husband, father and football coach and cooperated fully throughout this process," Harsin said via Friday's statement. "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. War Eagle!"