Auburn’s off-season investigation into Bryan Harsin and the public nature of the investigation brought back the spotlight on the school’s long-held reputation for meddling in athletics in February.
The university conducted an internal investigation into Harsin’s handling of his first year as Auburn’s football coach in early February, putting his status as head coach and the future of the football program in limbo for more than a week when the saga broke. The investigation nearly cost Harsin his job in less than 14 months of his tenure, but then-President Jay Gogue announced the university’s decision to keep Harsin on February 11 and offered a glimpse into the investigation.
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While the saga has since ended when Harsin opened up spring training, noting his desire to get over it and shift focus back to rebuilding the program, the ordeal still led to lingering questions about the university’s boosters’ involvement in athletics -Personnel decisions – especially in football. One of the school’s most prominent supporters, board member Jimmy Rane, raised the issue Thursday night in Montgomery while speaking at a banquet kicking off its annual charity golf event, according to a report by the Montgomery Advertiser.
“Trustees don’t hire and fire football coaches,” Rane said, according to the advertiser. “We hire and fire presidents. So I’m not aware of any role at all that the trustees played in this. I think there were questions the government had, and (Gogue) is the kind of president who wants facts. He’s going to do a thorough investigation, and that was a providential act of the administration. Certainly not the trustees.”
The investigation into Harsin actually began with a statement by Gogue during the university’s board of trustees meeting in Montgomery in February, when he – unsolicited – addressed rumors that were circulating online the night before.
“There was a lot of rumor and speculation about our football program,” Gogue said towards the end of the board meeting on the AUM campus. “I just want you to know that we are involved in separating fact from fiction. We keep you informed and make the right decision at the right time.”
This statement – made by an outgoing President on the same day the Board of Trustees officially announced his successor, Dr. Chris Roberts, who officially took over this week – was the catalyst for an eight-day saga that played out in public. Former players spoke out about their perceived treatment by Harsin and took offense at his handling of interpersonal relationships, while a large contingent of current players publicly supported the embattled coach, who also vehemently defended himself in an interview with ESPN while on vacation. For the better part of a week, Auburn endured a stalemate on the football schedule, even leading to a much-anticipated appearance by Harsin at the SEC’s annual coaches’ meeting in Birmingham in early February.
When the dust settled and the investigation concluded, Gogue announced that Harsin would be retained as Auburn’s coach. He enters Year 2 to not only recover from the damage done by the offseason drama, but also from the program’s worst season since 2012 — a 6-7 inaugural season that ended with a losing streak of five Play ended which led to a staff overhaul.
“I wish him all the success in the world,” said Rane, a trustee since 1999 and the richest man in Alabama. “I hope he wins every game he plays. It’s a tough league. It’s a tough job for anyone, but I certainly wish him the best.”
The Harsin Inquiry was just the latest case to raise questions about booster interference in Auburn’s athletics affairs. During the search that eventually led to Harsin’s hiring in December 2020, athletic director Allen Greene emerged from a behind-the-scenes fight and defied the influence and desires of some of the university’s most powerful boosters by hiring Harsin in place of their preferred candidate. Greene, AL.com reported at the time, wanted to conduct a thorough search rather than hastily hop onto a bus shortly after Gus Malzahn was fired — another decision influenced by the program’s boosters.
There have been other instances over the years, including during Malzahn’s checkered tenure as coach, that have fostered the university’s perceived reputation as booster interference, which Rane addressed on Thursday.
“I don’t know how to help people with their perception,” Rane told the Advertiser. “I only know facts. And there’s enough rumor that people can invent anything they want, but the facts speak for themselves and that’s the way things are done.”
Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.