The 2021 Iron Bowl gave some Auburn fans hope that 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 way behind the Alabama football program and in decline. Little of the blame for the Tigers’ weakness should be attributed to Bryan Harsin. He may not be a good fit for the SEC. He may not be able to recruit elite athletes. He may even be a ‘no better than average’ coach. But Auburn’s problems lie mainly outside the football field and outside the locker room.
To understand where the Tigers are now, you have to go back to Pat Dye’s tenure as Auburn head coach. A lot of evidence shows that Dye had 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 that 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 went beyond the Crimson Tide. Later, after another Crimson Tide National Championship, near 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 a mediocre coach, Tommy Tuberville, could dominate.
Nick Saban has revived the Tide program and despite one National Championship, Auburn is once again lost in the dust. Along with Saban, Robert Witt and Mal Moore deserve credit for the restoration of the Alabama Crimson Tide. Auburn, after Dye’s influence waned and ended with his death, was 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 because of the bizarre contract extension given to Gus Malzahn. Severing ties with Leath and Malzahn resulted in a $26 million price tag for Auburn.
Current Auburn AD, Allen Greene was hired by Leath. Greene is a solid administrator in most cases, but lacks the clout and control to cure many of the ills of Auburn athletics. According to Marshall and others, Greene wants to leave and others in Auburn hope he finds a new job soon. After being hired by Greene, who opposed Malzahn, Bryan Harsin’s tenure was shaky from day one.
Influential drivers wanted Kevin Steele hired instead of Harsin. When that was blocked by the Auburn president, Jay Gogue, Green’s chances of solid support deteriorated. Apparently a disgruntled Bryan Harsin will leave with a first good chance.
What Auburn seems to have in store is an ongoing battle to form a competitive team. Assuming Auburn had an advantage in NCAA-violating deals with recruits in the past, 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 a strange way that typifies Auburn, both Allen Greene and Bryan Harsin are lame ducks. What remains is when they find exits and the subsequent choices to replace them.
Students studying sports administration should use the maroon situation as a case study – how not to run an athletic program.