When it comes to football coaches, there’s no place like Auburn

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Auburn coach Bryan Harsin and Georgia coach Kirby Smart shake hands after Georgia defeated Auburn in October. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Last week, Auburn President Jay Gogue offered this: “There have been a lot of rumors and speculation about our football program. I just want you to know we’re involved in trying to separate fact from fiction. We’ll keep you posted and make the appropriate decision at the right time.”

Rumors? Speculation? Fiction? Yep, this is Auburn.

Auburn’s football coach is Bryan Harsin. This could be subject to change. He told ESPN’s Chris Low: “I’m not planning on going anywhere,” though he was on vacation as he spoke. Harsin also said: “Any attack on my character is malarkey,” though he used a different word.

Harsin was hired by Auburn from Boise State in December 2020. The 2021 Tigers went 6-7, losing their final five games. Auburn is apt to dump any coach at any time, but even Gene Chizik made it through four seasons, the second of which yielded a national championship.

For those without a stake in the matter, Harsin was an intriguing hire. How might a guy who’d gone 69-19 at Boise fare in the just-means-more SEC? For many Auburn backers, it was an insult. How could a non-Southerner hope to win — or recruit — in the just-means-more SEC?

Auburn had an opening because it finally got around to firing Gus Malzahn, whose 2020 Tigers had gone 6-4 during a pandemic. Malzahn’s buyout was $21.5 million. You really have to want a guy gone to pay him that much to leave, but that’s how Auburn rolls. It hires a coach and finds reason to want somebody else.

Back in 2003, Auburn decided it wanted Bobby Petrino, even though Tommy Tuberville was ensconced as coach. The fallout from that embarrassment led to ousters of the school president and athletic director, though not yet of Tuberville. In 2004, he led the Tigers to an undefeated season and the SEC championship. He lasted until 2008.

Terry Bowden was 46-12-1 over his first five Auburn seasons. He didn’t make it through the sixth. The infamous booster Bobby Lowder told Bowden he was out after the 1998 Tigers started 1-5, and that was at a time when Lowder — a Montgomery, Alabama, banker — essentially ran the university. In 2009, Colonial Bank was closed by federal regulators.

It’s said certain Auburn alums wanted Kevin Steele, who’d been Malzahn’s defensive coordinator, to succeed him as head coach. Steele’s record as a head coach at Baylor was 9-36, 1-31 in Big 12 play. Athletic director Allen Greene opted instead for Harsin. This being Auburn, complications ensued.

Harsin declined to say if he’d been vaccinated against COVID, that being a requirement for state employees. Harsin fired his receivers coach after four games. Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, Georgia alum, was dumped after the season. Defensive coordinator Derek Mason left to take the same job at Oklahoma State. Austin Davis, hired as Bobo’s replacement, quit after five weeks to spend time with his family.

Twenty Auburn players, including quarterback Bo Nix and running back Tank Bigsby, entered the transfer portal. Auburn landed no recruits last Wednesday, the second of the season’s two signing days. Defensive tackle Lee Hunter, who exited for UCF, wrote on Instagram: “Coach Harsin has the true mindset for a winner but a terrible mindset for a person … We got treated like we weren’t good enough and like dogs.”

Chris Roberts was named Auburn’s president Friday. Gogue was serving as interim prez. Greene is on the final year of his contract as AD. Continuity isn’t the school’s forte. If Harsin is indeed removed, the Tigers will be seeking their sixth head coach since Pat Dye stepped down in 1992.

The university released this statement Monday: “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.”

The bit about “issues in accordance with university policies and procedures” suggests Auburn is looking to fire Harsin, whose buyout is $18 million, for cause. Simply losing games doesn’t qualify. Gogue mentioned “rumors” last week. So did Harsin’s wife Kes, who posted on Instagram: “Rumors are carried by haters, spread by fools and accepted by idiots.”

As bleak as it might seem for Harsin, there’s no guarantee Auburn will do anything. After the 2018 season, rumors — those things again — swirled that the school wanted Malzahn to agree to a smaller buyout to avoid being fired. Only an idiot would have accepted that. After a week of waiting on a Gus-is-out announcement, Gus showed up for bowl practice and said: “My contract has not changed one bit. I was never told I had to change my contract to keep my job.”

He kept it for two more years. It’s Harsin’s job now, at least for the moment. Yep, this is Auburn.