Geographical fit can affect a coach’s candidacy and tenure, but coaches need not be raised on Waffle House to thrive in the SEC. Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, the SEC’s two most successful coaches this millennium, are from West Virginia and Ohio, respectively. Neither had worked within the SEC before becoming coaches within the conference.
Whether a coach fits well within a program matters more than where the coach is from.
Building a strong program comes easier for coaches who foster widespread allegiance from players and staff. Harsin isn’t earning that.
Multiple people who were part of Auburn’s program during Harsin’s 2021 debut on the Plains say he falls short of the standard for player treatment.
They describe Harsin as failing to win the locker room. And if a coach can’t win the locker room, he’ll struggle to put a successful product on the field.
“He’s a dictator, bro. This is a dictatorship,” former Auburn wide receiver Kobe Hudson said Friday on Instagram Live.
Hudson transferred to UCF in January. He’s one of 19 Auburn players who entered the NCAA transfer portal since the regular-season finale.
Harsin is in the second year of a six-year contract. He won 78.4% of his games in seven seasons coaching Boise State, his alma mater, before Auburn hired him in December 2020 to replace Gus Malzahn.
Opinions can vary greatly within a college football roster that features more than 100 players. It’s not uncommon for players to transfer after not meshing with a new coach.
Harsin isn’t without support. Linebacker Derick Hall tweeted that Harsin is a “great man of character who loves this team.”
Nonetheless, Harsin will have a harder time attracting talent after a former player compared his coaching style to a dictatorship.
Rival coaches will remind recruits who are considering Auburn of Hudson’s assessment. And Hudson isn’t alone in his criticism.
Without detailing specifics, former Auburn defensive lineman Lee Hunter wrote on Instagram that players were treated “like dogs.” Hunter transferred to UCF, too.
Coaches are exiting Harsin’s program at a cautionary rate. Four of the 10 assistants on Harsin’s 2021 staff either departed or were fired. Harsin must hire a coordinator for the third time since November.
Notably, well-respected defensive coordinator Derek Mason left in January for the same position at Oklahoma State, a lateral move, at best.
Defensive back Smoke Monday, who is NFL bound after four seasons at Auburn, described Harsin as “a hell of a coach” but added that he fails to connect with some players.
“For guys to succeed, this has to change,” Monday wrote on Instagram.
“Kids that come from the hood, like he truly don’t understand that,” Monday added, “but as kids we try our best to outgrow where we came from, but we need people that didn’t grow up the way we grew up to help us (along) the way.”
How did Harsin respond to criticism of his program’s culture? By claiming he has all the answers.
“I’m the right man for the job,” Harsin told ESPN on Thursday night. “There’s no doubt about it. No one is going to have a better plan than I do.”
That’s some kind of ego.
I can see why some players describe Harsin as being out of touch and unable to relate.
A coach is supposed to lead. He’s also supposed to listen. Harsin clearly isn’t doing enough of that.
“There is no Plan B. There’s Plan A,” Harsin said after Auburn lost to Houston in the Birmingham Bowl to finish the season at 6-7, including a five-game losing streak to end the year.
No Plan B? Sorry, but life rarely operates that smoothly.
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No coach is omnipotent, and the coach who refuses to evaluate himself and evolve is the coach who is left behind.
Knowing Xs and Os isn’t enough to win in today’s college football. Athletes have more voice and influence than ever, including the freedom to transfer without penalty and the opportunity to earn money through endorsements.
To succeed in college football in 2022, a coach must know how to relate and empathize with players from various backgrounds as well as he knows how to solve an opponent’s defense.
That doesn’t mean a coach must become the players’ friend or allow the athletes to run the program. But a coach’s ability to build strong, lasting relationships with recruits, players, staff and administrators matters at least as much as a coach’s ability to devise a third-down blitz.
Strong leadership remains in style, but strong leadership is not synonymous with stubbornness or ruling with an iron fist.
I question whether Harsin grasps that.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.