“New-Age” Demand for Chief Executive [Football] Officer

College sports are drastically changing. Since the NCAA lifted its ban against student-athletes earning compensation for their Name, Image, and Likeness, we have seen a much more student-focused approach to recruiting. In addition, the new immediate eligibility for transfer students now means that the transfer portal can be used as an instant tool to shape one’s program. Overall, each of these foundational changes is impacting the landscape of college sports. As a result, coaches within college sports are now being required to evolve more than ever. Truthfully, the role of a college coach is shaping into more of a CEO-styled position than a sport-specific mastermind. Now, coaches are challenged to foster an environment that is inviting enough to attract talented players, collaborative enough to sustain student-athletes, and efficient enough to generate immediate success.

None of these realities are more evident than in major Division I college football. The pressure for athletic departments to find a coach, whose name carries enough clout to attract prospective student-athletes, a coach skilled enough to evolve with the changing times, and a coach strategically savvy enough to produce a successful on-field product almost immediately is at an all-time high. Once hired, the pressure then shifts to the head coach who was likely given an exorbitant salary under the expectation that they will produce results immediately.

So, what happens when people within a program’s inner circle are not happy with the immediate results? Well, the recent situation surrounding Auburn’s Head Football Coach, Bryan Harsin, strongly illustrates this conundrum.

Only 14 months after the beginning of his tenure, it was made clear that many people in the Auburn inner circle no longer want Coach Bryan Harsin to lead their program. Photo Cred.

The Start to Coach Harsin’s Tenure

Coach Harsin was hired by Auburn University on December 22, 2020 following a 7-year stint as the Head Football Coach of Boise State University where he had the 5th highest winning percentage in all of major college football. [1] Specifically, Coach Harsin agreed to the terms of a 6-year contract worth $31.5 million.[2] At the time, it was reported that Coach Harsin was not one of the top choices to lead Auburn. Rather, it appeared that Coach Harsin was offered the position after several other coaches turned down the opportunity.[3] Nonetheless, in late 2020 Coach Harsin began his tenure leading the Auburn program. A mere fourteen (14) months later, it is clear that many people within the Auburn alumni circle don’t want Coach Harsin to lead their program. 

Coach Harsin proved that he could be a successful Head Coach in the “old age” of college football at both Boise State University and Arkansas State University. However, it may take some adapting to become successful in the “new age” of college athletics in the SEC. Photo Cred.

How to End Coach Harsin’s Tenure

Ultimately, to end Coach Harsin’s tenure with the program, Auburn would have three options: (1) “For-Cause” firing after finding a substantial reason to do so, (2) without cause firing which would trigger the buy-out clause in Coach Harsin’s contract, and (3) a settlement between the two sides where both parties can part ways at a mutually agreed upon price. [4]

In an earlier post, I discussed the major business decisions that occur during the hiring and firing cycle of major college football.[5] There, I discussed the various buy-outs that departments were able to afford to end a coaching tenure prematurely. However, it is not always financially feasible to finance a buy-out so that another coach can be brought in.

For example, a “For-Cause” firing was the only financially reasonable way that Auburn could part ways with Coach Harsin. Id. More specifically, a “without-cause” firing would trigger an $18.2 million buy-out (70% of remaining deal, per terms of initial agreement). Id. An $18.2 million buy-out would be the largest of this off-season’s coaching cycle. Id. An $18.2 million buy-out makes even less sense for an athletic department that operated at a  $9.7 million deficit in 2021, Auburn’s first deficit in 7-years. [6]  In addition to a buy-out being financially unrealistic at this time, so too was a mutual agreement to part ways with Coach Harsin. Coach Harsin made it abundantly clear that he “want[s] this thing to work” and that he is not “planning on going anywhere.”[7] Therefore, the only realistic choice still remaining was to discover a “for-cause” substantial reason to fire Coach Harsin. A proper “for-cause” firing of Coach Harsin would result in the university not owing Coach Harsin any more money, and could then allow it tostart searching for his replacement. However, a “for-cause” firing would not occur without a potential legal fight from Coach Harsin. Therefore, to avoid a wrongful termination allegation, there must be “substantial” reasons to justify the firing.

The Line Between “For Cause” and Just-Not-Good-Enough

Immediately following college football’s early signing day on February 2, 2022, it was clear that attempts to find “for-cause” reasons to justify parting ways with Coach Harsin began. The primary narrative across the rumors was that Coach Harsin fostered a “dysfunctional program[.]”[8] More specifically, the rumors appeared to use three primary areas as examples of a dysfunctional program: (1) mistreatment of staff, (2) inability to foster an environment to sustain current players, and (3) inability to generate an “elite” recruiting or transfer class.[9]

The timeline below, generated by 247Sports, demonstrates the level of urgency at which individuals within Auburn’s circle moved to establish “for-cause” reasons to cut-ties with Coach Harsin following the conclusion of “Early Signing Day”. [10]

• Feb. 2: Auburn goes 0-for-4 on its top targets and signs zero recruits during the February signing day. Id.

• Feb. 3: Harsin, along with several assistant coaches, leave Auburn on scheduled vacations. Id.

• Feb. 3: Auburn Undercover reports that Harsin is facing scrutiny from university leadership for “accusations of verbally abusive treatment of players, coaches and support staff.” Id.

• Feb. 4: Auburn players, current and former, voice opinions on Harsin as his situation becomes more public. More than a dozen players on the current roster make their support known. Id.

• Feb. 4: While on vacation in Mexico, Harsin speaks in an ESPN story, saying “any attack on my character is bullsh–t.” The report claims Harsin is facing accusations of “overall volatility in the program and Harsin’s treatment of players and assistant coaches,” and that university officials have been conducting interviews with players, coaches and other staffers who have left the program after mistreatment from Harsin. Id.

Feb. 4: University president Jay Gogue tells reporters at the trustees meeting, “we are involved in trying to separate fact from fiction and we will keep you posted and make the appropriate decisions at the right time.” Id.

• Feb. 4: Auburn athletic director meets with player leadership to discuss Harsin’s situation and listens to opinions. Id.

• Feb. 6: Auburn’s senior center publicly invites Auburn’s Board of Trustees and Gogue to speak with the team in person and keep them in the loop: “Your decisions will impact us and this program for years to come.” Id.

• Feb. 6: Auburn officially acknowledges the debacle for the first time in a statement to reporters: “The Auburn administration is judiciously collecting information from a variety of perspectives, including our student-athletes, and moving swiftly to understand any issues in accordance with university policies and procedures. Decisions regarding the future of Auburn and its Athletics programs, as always, are made in the interests of our great university and in fairness to all concerned. We do not make institutional decisions based on social media posts or media headlines.” Id.

Mistreating of Staff

Included in the narrative of a “dysfunctional” program were various allegations of mistreating staff members. The following situations were identified as examples of dysfunction amongst Coach Harsin’s staff.

Most notable:

• Sept. 26: Citing poor performance from the position group, Harsin fires first-year receivers coach Cornelius Williams four games into the season. [11]

• Nov. 29: First-year offensive coordinator Mike Bobo is fired after Auburn scored zero second-half touchdowns in its final five games of the regular season. Id.

• Dec. 18: Auburn hires Austin Davis as the team’s new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks’ coach. Id.

• Jan. 7: Defensive line coach Nick Eason leaves for Clemson, his alma mater. Id.

• Jan. 26: Defensive coordinator Derek Mason officially leaves for the same job at Oklahoma State, where he is taking a $400,000 annual pay-cut. Id.

• Jan. 31: After 43 days on the job, Davis resigns from his post at Auburn[.] Id.

Recruiting – Not Adapting to the Rules of the Game

It was also rumored that Coach Harsin didn’t adapt to the “new-age” of college recruiting in the SEC.[12] Within the fourteen (14) months of Coach Harsin’s tenure, college sports as a whole began to dramatically change. Arguably the most crucial change came this past June, when the NCAA lifted its ban against student athletes earning compensation for their Name, Image, and Likeness. As a result, many institutions and states attempted to interpret how this newly found world could be of benefit to their programs. This “new-age” of recruiting appeared to create a challenge that Coach Harsin was unable to adjustto in his first recruiting cycle. Id.

National Recruiting Rankings

It was made abundantly clear that a 19th overall national recruiting ranking was not “good enough” at Auburn.

[13]

Sure, a nineteenth (19th) ranked recruiting class may appear to be promising, but when comparing Auburn’s class to the other elite programs that make up the South Eastern Conference (“SEC”), it is clear that Coach Harsin didn’t produce a type of recruiting class expected in the SEC. Id.

SEC Recruiting Rankings

A 9th place ranking following Coach Harsin’s first full recruiting cycle generated concern from the inner circle of Auburn football.

[14]

Transfers – Fostering an Environment Worth Leaving

In addition to the changes in the recruiting landscape, so too have changes occurred with respect to transfer students. Most notably, in April of 2021 the NCAA Board of Directors ratified transfer legislation to allow for “immediate eligibility[.]”[15] This rule is in its infancy stages, as it officially applied to students seeking to transfer in the 2021-2022 academic year, but nonetheless has proven to be impactful. Id. More specifically, now that student athletes do not need to sit out a year, programs can access the transfer portal to “recruit” ready-now student athletes in hopes that they can make an immediate impact.. Although the transfer portal has its benefits, it is a tool that can also be used as a detriment against a particular program. For example, if a student athlete is unhappy with their role in a given program, then the transfer portal allows for an easy access to potentially be a part of other programs. Balancing the benefits and detriments of the transfer portal will prove to be one of the many adaptations that college coaches will face moving forward. Based on the following transfer rankings thus far in major college football, it appears that Auburn is again slightly below the “elite” national and SEC standard.

National Transfer Rankings

NIL + Immediate Eligibility = never before seen opportunity to use the transfer portal as a tool for instant change. Unfortunately, a 29th national ranking doesn’t seem to be “good enough” either at Auburn.

[16]

SEC TRANSFER RANKING

[17]

In addition to producing a below-expectation transfer class, the number of Auburn players who entered the transfer portal suggests that Coach Harsin hasn’t fostered an environment that student-athletes wanted to remain in.[18] More specifically, Auburn has seen nearly two dozen student athletes leave the program and attempt to play elsewhere. Id. A few situations can further illustrate this “dysfunction”.[19]

• Dec. 12: After much speculation, [Bo] Nix, a three-year starting quarterback and Auburn legacy, transfers out of the program and ends up at Oregon. Id.

• Dec. 28: Auburn loses to Houston in the bowl game, securing the program’s first losing season since 2012.

• Jan. 3: The team’s leading receiver, Kobe Hudson, says he was kicked off the team and transfers the next day. He says in an Instagram post, “He from the north I’m from the south he don’t understand me.”

• Jan. 7: Defensive line coach Nick Eason leaves for Clemson, his alma mater. Seven Auburn defensive linemen transferred in January.

• Feb. 2: Presumed 2022 starting receiver Ja’Varrius Johnson enters the portal, marking 18 outgoing scholarship players by transfer for Auburn since the conclusion of the regular season.

Auburn’s Ultimate Decision

Overall, the rumors surrounding the mistreatment of staff, inability to foster an environment where players want to stay, and generating a below-average SEC recruiting and transfer class were evidently not enough for Auburn to confidently pursue a “for-cause” firing of Coach Harsin.  Auburn announced on February 11, 2022 that Coach Harsin would actually return to “lead” the Tigers despite all the swirling rumors that hinted to the contrary.[20] Nonetheless, Coach Harsin continues his head coaching role with clearly very little support.

Primary Takeaways from Tension Points

All in all, the specifics of the situation surrounding Coach Harsin very well may be unique to the way that Auburn functions internally.[21] However, a few of the tension points presented by this situation are instructive.

First, in an ever-evolving landscape of college sports, institutions may be challenged to re-assess their traditional ways of hiring head coaches. For example, the head coaching role at a major college football program appears to be resembling more of a CEO type position than a traditional football coach. Therefore, it is possible that traditionally successful head coaches may not have the tools to immediately adapt in the “new age” of college athletics.

Second, in an ever-evolving landscape of college sports, maximizing all the opportunities for student athletes is becoming the primary concern. Therefore, coaches who are hired, may have to find creative ways to navigate this evolving world to ultimately foster an environment where both players and coaches want to remain.

Finally, institutions, and those within the inner circle, must ask themselves: what is a reasonable and realistic timeline for a coach to produce successful results? Maybe allowing your head coach some time to also adapt and evolve to the ever-changing climate of college sports is more financially reasonable than multi-million-dollar buyouts.  Or, equally, perhaps giving your head coach reasonable time would cause less institutional damage than publicly attempting to find “for-cause” reasons to end that coach’s tenure. Ultimately, however, there will always be some coaches who will be given the opportunity to evolve, and those treated as disposable. Institutions must decide who they want to be in this “new age” of college athletics.


[1] https://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/30584705/auburn-set-hire-boise-state-bryan-harsin-next-head-football-coach-source-says

[2] https://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com/story/sports/college/auburn/2022/02/07/bryan-harsin-buyout-what-auburn-owes-football-coach-if-fired/6678048001/

[3] https://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/30584705/auburn-set-hire-boise-state-bryan-harsin-next-head-football-coach-source-says

[4] https://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com/story/sports/college/auburn/2022/02/07/bryan-harsin-buyout-what-auburn-owes-football-coach-if-fired/6678048001/

[5] https://ublawsportsforum.com/2021/12/04/is-this-the-product-that-major-college-football-truly-desires-to-produce/

[6] https://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com/story/sports/college/auburn/2022/01/25/auburn-athletics-operates-financial-loss-first-time-7-years/9209701002/

[7] https://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/33216111/auburn-tigers-football-coach-bryan-harsin-not-planning-going-anywhere-amid-program-volatility

[8] https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/ncaaf/sec/2022/02/04/bryan-harsin-auburn-football-toxic-dysfunctional-program/6670942001/

[9] https://www.si.com/college/2022/02/11/auburn-retains-bryan-harsin-problems-exist-football-program

[10] https://247sports.com/college/auburn/Article/bryan-harsin-auburn-football-182578739/

[11] https://247sports.com/college/auburn/Article/bryan-harsin-auburn-football-182578739/

[12] https://www.al.com/auburnfootball/2022/02/auburns-message-to-bryan-harsin-is-clear-its-over.html

[13] https://247sports.com/Season/2022-Football/CompositeTeamRankings/

[14] https://247sports.com/Season/2022-Football/CompositeTeamRankings/?Conference=SEC

[15] https://www.cbssports.com/college-football/news/how-auburn-bryan-harsin-move-forward-as-soap-opera-ends-with-tigers-coach-returning-for-second-season/

[16] https://247sports.com/Season/2022-Football/TransferTeamRankings/

[17] https://247sports.com/Season/2022-Football/TransferTeamRankings/?Conference=SEC

[18] https://www.si.com/extra-mustard/2022/02/07/auburn-releases-statement-bryan-harsin-job-status

[19] https://247sports.com/college/auburn/Article/bryan-harsin-auburn-football-182578739/

[20] https://www.cbssports.com/college-football/news/auburn-retains-bryan-harsin-tigers-bring-back-coach-for-2022-season-despite-controversy-turnover/

[21] https://www.saturdaydownsouth.com/sec-football/first-and-10-its-not-you-bryan-harsin-its-simply-the-auburn-way/

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President of the Buffalo Sports and Entertainment Law Society. Before law school, I coached college football at the University of Rochester for five seasons. I am excited to take these experiences, along with a legal education to make an impact on the ever-evolving landscape of college athletics. Thanks for reading our posts!

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