AUBURN — In his first season as Auburn football coach, Bryan Harsin created a divisive culture in which relationships with certain players were neglected and staff members felt ignored, according to multiple sources with direct knowledge of the inner workings of the Auburn football program under Harsin.
The inside view of the program comes as Harsin’s tenure with the Tigers has come under the microscope. The contentious relationships described to The Advertiser were in the backdrop of significant coaching staff changeover, widespread player defections and came to light days after Auburn failed to add a single recruit on National Signing Day on Wednesday.
On Friday, Auburn president Jay Gogue said during a board of trustees meeting, “There’s been a lot of rumors and a lot of allegations made about our football program, and I just want you to know that we’re involved and trying to separate fact from fiction and we’ll keep you posted and make the appropriate decisions at the right time.”
Harsin, 45, told ESPN.com on Thursday night that he is Auburn’s head coach and operating in that capacity.
“All the issues in the (Auburn) program have to do with the head coach,” one source told The Advertiser. “He treated players and coaches poorly. He couldn’t empathize with players. He wasn’t genuine. And he ran off many of his best players.”
The source described Harsin’s program as “toxic” and “dysfunctional.”
The opinion of Harsin, who came to Auburn after seven years as head coach at Boise State, among players is split. Some adamantly came to his defense on social media Friday, while others described a coach who fails to “understand kids that come from nothing,” as graduating safety Smoke Monday posted.
“Harsin is a hell of a coach that wants to win,” Monday, who has entered the NFL draft, posted on Instagram. “… But as kids we try our best to out-grow where we came from but we need people that didn’t grow up the way we grow up to help us.”
Auburn did not respond to a request for comment from The Advertiser on Friday.
The player discourse began with an Instagram post Friday morning by defensive lineman Lee Hunter, who transferred to UCF. “The reason I chose to leave Auburn (was) because we got treated like we wasn’t good enough and like dogs. … Coach Harsin has the true mindset for a winner but has a terrible mindset as a person.”
A current player, who spoke to The Advertiser on condition of anonymity Friday, said in a direct message that “we don’t get treated like dogs” and that the rift is because some players are “just not used to his mentality.”
“Don’t believe the things you see,” edge Derick Hall tweeted Friday. “@CoachHarsin works harder than no other man to put this program in the best position to be successful. … Great man of character who loves this team!”
‘I don’t think he has true empathy’
Nineteen Auburn players have entered the transfer portal since the end of the season.
Multiple sources said Harsin would not speak to players he didn’t like when he wanted them out of the program. He would cut off correspondence with the player and family members.
Position coaches were tasked with telling players Harsin wanted out that they should leave the program.
“He’s going to send somebody else to do the dirty work,” one source said.
Another source recalled one instance of a player texting Harsin to apologize for a poor performance in a game. The player asked for guidance on how he could improve. Harsin did not reply to the text message. Instead, he had the player’s position coach call the player to tell him he needed to leave the program.
A source said Harsin made efforts to relate to players like the ones he had at Boise State – often from a working-class white demographic – but did not always make the same effort to connect with others – often Black players from urban areas in the South. However, the source said they never heard Harsin use racist remarks or language.
When leading wide receiver Kobe Hudson entered the transfer portal in January, he tweeted, “He from the north I understood him, I’m from the south he didn’t understand me,” without naming Harsin. He transferred to UCF to play for former Auburn coach Gus Malzahn.
“There are sometimes players that are going through personal things that (Harsin) knows about, and he doesn’t have empathy for those situations,” one source said. “Whether it be a kid from a single-parent family, or a kid who’s going through struggles in life. I don’t think he has true empathy for kids.”
“How do you expect a young man to grow when you don’t even talk to them,” another source said, “or if you talk down to them, or if you tell them to get out of your office?”
A source also said Harsin hated the concept of name, image and likeness and made that clear to players. Harsin was particularly critical of players from low-income families who received money from NIL deals because he thought they lost their focus on football, one source added.
‘I’m the Auburn coach’
Harsin had considerable coaching turnover through his first season, which ended with a 6-7 record.. It marked the program’s first losing season since 2012. After a 6-2 start, Auburn lost its last five games.
Derek Mason, who was hired as defensive coordinator at the start of Harsin’s tenure, left after one season for the same position at Oklahoma State. Mike Bobo was fired after one season as offensive coordinator. Bobo’s replacement, Austin Davis, resigned after 43 days.
Sources said Harsin was often quick to dismiss input from assistants. Four games into the season, he fired Cornelius Williams, a young and respected receivers coach from Alabama who had stints at Troy, South Alabama, North Alabama, Jacksonville State and UAB.
Sources were puzzled by Williams’ firing, and Harsin didn’t widely provide a reason for it, the sources said. But the decision removed from the staff a coach who connected well with players — something Harsin couldn’t afford.
“(Williams) did nothing but did his damn job,” one source said. “He had a great relationship with the players.”
Harsin replaced him by promoting offensive analyst Eric Kiesau, who was an assistant coach for Harsin at Boise State. When Mason left for Oklahoma State in January, Harsin promoted linebackers coach Jeff Schmedding, another former Boise State assistant.
Harsin spoke with ESPN.com on Thursday night, saying that “any attack on my character is bulls—” and that he is isn’t planning on leaving.
“I’m the Auburn coach, and that’s how I’m operating every day,” Harsin told ESPN.com. “I want this thing to work, and I’ve told our players and told everybody else there is no Plan B.”
This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: Sources: Bryan Harsin’s Auburn football program toxic, dysfunctional