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 he will produce results immediately.
So, what happens when people within a program’s inner circle are not happy with the immediate results? Well, look no further than Bryan Harsin’s entire tenure at Auburn University.
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. Specifically, Coach Harsin agreed to the terms of a 6-year contract worth $31.5 million. 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. Well, after 21 games and less than two full seasons later, Auburn University has decided to part ways with Coach Harsin.
Coach Harsin’s Time at Auburn
Overall, Coach Harsin led the Tigers for 21 games where he amassed a 9-12 record overall, which includes a 4-9 mark against SEC opponents. Moreover, the Tigers are currently 3-5 on the season and had just lost to Arkansas at home by a score of 41-27. Id.
While some may feel that 21 games is a small sample size to prove your worth, the fact is that the writing has been on the wall for Coach Harsin since February 2, 2022. Specifically, immediately following college football’s early signing day (February 2, 2022), it was clear that attempts to find “for-cause” reasons to fire Coach Harsin had begun. At that time, it was rumored that Coach Harsin fostered a “dysfunctional program.” To illustrate a dysfunctional program, rumors swirled regarding Coach Harsin’s mistreatment of staff, failure to sustain current players, and an inability to generate “elite” recruiting or transfer classes.
For a detailed timeline regarding the alleged dysfunction, please read the article I wrote regarding Coach Harsin this past February.
Ultimately, much to the dismay of those affiliated with Auburn University, none of the rumors resulted in the firing of Coach Harsin this past offseason. Rather, Auburn waited for eight games into the 2022 season to fire Coach Harsin and because the attempts to find “for cause” failed, Auburn now owes Bryan Harsin $15.3 million in his buyout. This $15.3 million buyout is in addition to the $21.45 million buyout that Auburn paid Gus Malzahn in 2020 prior to hiring Bryan Harsin. Id. In sum, that is $36.75 million committed to coaches to no longer do their jobs.
At some point, enough is enough. In a world where we are still trying to determine whether college athletes should be paid by their institutions, we have dozens of institutions paying millions and millions of dollars to coaches to no longer do their jobs. Sure, a head coach is important, and the right head coach could very well maximize the overall brand of an institution, but how can institution decision makers be okay with paying these exorbitant amounts to admit their mistakes and still pay $0 to their players? The reality is that both coaches and players work together to generate product on the field and an institution’s investment must reflect that. Accordingly, once institutions are able to pay their players, institutions will likely realize that there are alternative means to investing in their head coaching position. Until then, the carousel will continue and institutions will inevitably have to pay coaches millions to no longer do their jobs in hopes that the next head coach is the answer to their problems.