Talty: New Auburn AD must deliver right football coach. It’s not Bryan Harsin – AL.com

  • October 31, 2022

Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen, left, hands new head football coach Joe Moorhead a traditional cowbell during an NCAA college football news conference, Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017, in Starkville, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)AP
Welcome to Auburn, John Cohen.
Once you pick a new house to move to, you must pick a new football coach. You might even want to reverse the order of those actions.
Clearly, Bryan Harsin can’t be the guy moving forward. That’s not a new development – it’s been obvious almost from Day 1 – but the sooner Auburn can pull the plug on the failed second-year head coach, the better. As my colleague, Joe Goodman put it, “A zombie walks the sidelines of Jordan-Hare Stadium where the ghosts of greatness linger in sadness, and the zombie’s name is Bryan Harsin.” The mass fan exodus in the third quarter against Arkansas made very clear what the fanbase thinks of Harsin and the product he trots out each game.
The next Auburn athletic director has to dump Harsin and find a worthy replacement who can elevate the program back to where it belongs. Cohen, currently the Mississippi State athletic director, is expected to be that man as the two sides worked to finalize a deal Saturday after the school identified him as its top target, a source with knowledge of the situation told AL.com.
Assuming the deal is finalized, Cohen is an interesting pick for an Auburn athletic department that badly needs strong leadership. As a former successful SEC baseball coach, Cohen is more of an old-school AD than the current trends that favor fundraising and marketing experience. Cohen is authentic and well-respected within the conference, but not the most influential voice in the AD room. What bears watching is how Cohen manages a notoriously involved booster base, as he’s known to be strong-willed and won’t automatically rubberstamp whatever influential boosters demand.
That could come into play as he must quickly devise a solution for Auburn’s football woes. Cohen made two football hires as Mississippi State’s AD to mixed, at best, results.
When Dan Mullen left Mississippi State for Florida, Cohen opted to replace him with Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. There were immediate questions about Moorhead’s fit at Mississippi State because he had no real experience coaching or recruiting in the South — does that sound familiar, Auburn fans? — but Cohen was blown away by what he heard during the interview. Cohen explained to me that Moorhead won the job over candidates like Jeremy Pruitt in the interview room.
“Fit for us was really important, and that’s the importance of going eyeball-to-eyeball with someone and sitting in the same room,” Cohen told me. “You have an idea from talking on the phone, but at the same time sitting in the same room becomes an important factor.”
Moorhead, by all accounts a good guy, was a predictably bad fit at Mississippi State. Cohen fired Moorhead after two years and a 14-12 record following a Liberty Bowl loss. After Ole Miss made a splashy hire in Lane Kiffin, Cohen decided to win the press conference luring Mike Leach away from Washington State. Interestingly, in that same story I wrote about how interviews impact coaching searches that featured Cohen’s insight, there is an anecdote about how Leach lost the Maryland job because of how badly he bombed the interview with the selection committee. It seems Cohen didn’t focus as much on the in-person interview when he tabbed the Mad Pirate.
Leach has been neither a major success nor a disaster; he has precisely a .500 record at 16-16, benefitting from a strong 5-3 start to this season. Leach has yet to win an Egg Bowl against rival Ole Miss, a game that means a tremendous amount in the state of Mississippi. Cohen, who agreed to a contract extension at MSU earlier this year, was in many ways tied to Leach and needed him to be successful moving forward.
At Auburn, it will be more of the same. Cohen’s predecessor, Allen Greene, made the wrong football hire, upsetting important boosters along the way, and that essentially sealed his fate. Unlike Greene, Cohen has Power 5 AD experience and has made major hires before.
The big question will be whether Cohen has learned from his previous hiring mistakes. He might get only one shot at a football hire at Auburn, and he must get it right. Auburn should be the best job that opens up this hiring cycle, and there will be plenty of talented coaches that could be options for Cohen to choose from once he makes a change.
Does he want a former Ole Miss head coach with equal amounts of baggage and offensive wizardry? Will he try to kick the tires on a recently fired NFL head coach who had considerable success in the Big 12? What about a hotshot offensive coordinator who previously coached at Auburn? Or a coach perfect for prime time?That current Ole Miss head coach wouldn’t be a bad option for reasons I’ve previously laid out.
Whomever Cohen decides on, the new coach needs to be able to energize the fanbase in a way Harsin never did. With the growing importance of the transfer portal and Name, Image and Likeness, there is an opportunity for the right coach to hit the ground running and make a significant impact right away.
First, Auburn needed to find a new AD, as it appears to have done with Cohen. Whether that will prove the right hire depends entirely on who Cohen can land as the school’s new football coach.
GOODMAN: For Auburn, the horror of rock bottom is here
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Illinois? Illinois! Bret Bielema’s Fighting Illini are 7-1 and in great shape to win the Big Ten West. Has Illinois beaten anyone good? Maybe not, but the fanbase is understandably excited about the program’s first 7-1 start since 2001. Illinois could be 9-1 headed to the Big House to face Michigan in what could improbably be a top 10 showdown. Bielema is clearly a better fit in the Big Ten than SEC, and is looking like the right guy so far for Illinois.
Poor Gunnar Gundy got thrown to the wolves at the end of perhaps the most embarrassing loss of his dad’s long tenure in Stillwater. 48-0 to a backup quarterback-led Kansas State is stunning. Gone are any hopes of making a run at the College Football Playoff, and instead further realization that this is the purgatory Cowboys fans must live in under Gundy. This atrocious loss notwithstanding, Oklahoma State is always pretty good but never good enough. This one is going to sting for some time.
1) Tennessee at Georgia (2:30 p.m.): This could be the SEC Game of the Year. Both are legitimate College Football Playoff contenders, but the winner of this game likely wins the SEC East. I already can’t wait to watch how Tennessee’s high-powered offense fairs against one of the nation’s best defenses.
2) Alabama at LSU (6:00 p.m.): An Alabama team that has struggled on the road all season now has to handle what could be the most intimidating environment in college football — a night game in Death Valley. There are potential SEC West title implications here as the Crimson Tide tries to stay in the national title hunt.
3) Florida at Texas A&M (11:00 a.m.): Texas A&M finally scored more than 24 points — hang the banner, Jimbo! — and looked more competent with Conner Weigman at quarterback. Florida hung tough with Georgia for longer than people expected and could hand the Aggies their sixth loss of the season.
4) Liberty at Arkansas (3:00 p.m.): Hugh Freeze just received a big contract extension, but that won’t stop speculation that he could be the focus of prominent coaching searches. Freeze relishes opportunities to prove he belongs in the SEC again and will dial it up against the Razorbacks.
5) Auburn at Mississippi State (6:30 p.m.): The John Cohen Bowl! Will Cohen sit in a Mississippi State or Auburn luxury suite? That might be more interesting than anything Harsin and Auburn do on the field.
John Talty is the sports editor and SEC Insider for Alabama Media Group. He is the bestselling author of “The Leadership Secrets of Nick Saban: How Alabama’s Coach Became the Greatest Ever.”
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