The 2021 Iron Bowl gave some Auburn fans hope Bryan Harsin’s program is close to Alabama Football. Given the overtime result, that delusion is understandable. What the game was, however, was a chimera. No, not a monster from Greek mythology, but as defined in a secondary definition by Merriam-Webster, “something that exists only in the imagination.”
The Auburn football program is far behind the Alabama football program and receding. Little of the fault for the Tigers’ weakness should be attributed to Bryan Harsin. He may be a bad fit in the SEC. He may not be able to recruit elite athletes. He might even be a ‘no better than average’ coach. But Auburn’s problems lie mostly off the football field and outside the locker room.
Understanding where the Tigers are today requires going back to Pat Dye’s tenure as Auburn head coach. Much evidence shows Dye ran a dirty program. At the same time, he was a very good football coach. In 2017, Dye stated that Alabama Football was so far ahead of Auburn, it would take the Tigers 500 years to catch up. That exaggeration ignored the fact that for a time in the 1980s, Dye built a program that moved past the Crimson Tide. Later, after another Crimson Tide National Championship, at the end of Gene Stallings’ tenure, The Tide program damaged itself. Internal dysfunction, in and above the Athletic Department, caused Alabama Football to dig itself into such a deep hole – even mediocre coach, Tommy Tuberville could dominate it.
Nick Saban revived the Tide program and despite one National Championship, Auburn has been lost in the dust again. Along with Saban, Robert Witt and Mal Moore deserve credit for the Alabama Crimson Tide’s restoration. Auburn, after Dye’s influence waned and ended with his death, has been an opposite example. As in, how not to run a football program.
According to Auburn Tigers’ insider, Phillip Marshall, Auburn President, Steven Leath was fired primarily for the bizarre contract extension given to Gus Malzahn. Cutting ties to Leath and Malzahn ended up with a $26M price tag for Auburn.
Current Auburn AD, Allen Greene was hired by Leath. Greene is by most accounts a solid administrator but lacks enough clout and control to remedy many of the ills of Auburn athletics. According to Marshall and others, Greene wants out and others in Auburn hope he finds a new job soon. Having been hired by Greene, who was opposed to firing Malzahn, Bryan Harsin’s tenure was shaky from day one.
Influential boosters wanted Kevin Steele hired instead of Harsin. When that was blocked by Auburn President, Jay Gogue, Green’s chance of having solid backing deteriorated. Apparently, a dissatisfied Bryan Harsin will exit with a first good opportunity.
What appears to be ahead for Auburn is a continued struggle to field a competitive team. Assuming Auburn had a past advantage in NCAA-violating deals to recruits, that advantage has been negated by the ‘anything goes’ world allowed by NIL deals. Could that be why Auburn has quickly become unattractive to elite athletes?
In an odd way that typifies Auburn, both Allen Greene and Bryan Harsin are lame ducks. What is left are when they find exits and the subsequent choices to replace them.
Students studying sports administration should use the Auburn situation as a case study – in how not to run an athletic program.