Whatever happens next for Auburn football, the results for their next SEC football season are already clear. The Auburn Tigers will be one of the worst teams in the SEC next season. No staff led by Bryan Harsin or any new head coach can compensate for the level of talent the Tigers will field in 2022.
At best, Auburn will be in the bottom four of the SEC. At worst, and more likely, the Tigers will finish No. 7 in the SEC West.
It is clear that Auburn power-brokers want to fire Bryan Harsin for cause, in an attempt to save the program his buyout cost of $18M. So far, he has been accused of being abusive to players and assistant coaches. Allegation of an affair has been suggested as extra proof that Harsin’s character is unacceptable to lead the Auburn program. Whether he is guilty of marital infidelity or not, such character issues don’t seem to give Auburn pause about hiring Hugh Freeze to replace Harsin.
Auburn could use a different and more successful strategy. It would be easy because it has done the same before and also has a model to follow from another SEC football program. When Bruce Pearl and Auburn got into trouble with the NCAA, Auburn was smart. The potential penalties for Pearl’s third NCAA investigation could have been severe. The only college coach to be hired while in a ‘show-cause’ window, needed to be saved again. So Auburn admitted guilt as a result of an internal investigation and self-imposed a post-season ban for the 2021 college basketball season. The genius in that move was Auburn was not going to be good enough to earn an NCAA Tournament bid so the ban cost it nothing.
An SEC Football Model for Coach Termination
The Tennessee Vols did something similar when it was decided they wanted Jeremy Pruitt out and did not want to pay his buyout. Tennessee hired a ‘friendly’ group to conduct an internally controlled investigation. Not surprisingly the investigation concluded Pruitt and others had broken recruiting rules. Pruitt was fired and AD, Phillip Fulmer had to retire again, as a result.
The irony in the Tennessee situation being the Vols program was accused of cheating on multiple occasions when Fulmer was the coach, but somehow avoided serious consequences.
Like Tennessee, Auburn’s financial situation does not need another multi-million dollar hit to its bottom line. If Auburn has to pay Harsin $18M, the total paid out to its last four head coaches upon termination will be over $50M, and that does not include buyouts for assistant coaches.
An Auburn internal investigation that ‘discovered’ recruiting violations under Harsin would be immediately credible since many believe the program has long been proficient at cheating. Then Auburn could self-impose a ban on winning the SEC West next season and disqualify the program for any post-season game opportunity. Firing Harsin for cause would be covered by admitting recruiting violations under his watch.
Admittedly, this suggestion could be seen as a senseless ruse. But it certainly would not be any more stupid than everything else the Tigers are doing to their football program.