After Auburn ousted Bryan Harsin in another multimillion dollar mistake, what's next for this wild-card program?

On Dec. 13, 2020, Auburn fired its head football coach, Gus Malzahn.

Per terms of the contract, Malzahn was owed $21.45 million. Half of that — or $10.275 million — was paid within 30 days of termination. The rest is being paid annually in $2.68 million installments even though Malzahn quickly accepted a new head coaching job at UCF, which will pay him $11.5 million over five years.

Auburn also had to pay Malzahn's assistant coaches and staffers who were not retained. That bill was approximately $7.15 million, per the Opelika-Auburn News.

So that’s $28.6 million to get rid of Malzahn and company.

Less than two weeks after firing Malzahn, Auburn hired Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin as its new top man. It gave him a six-year contract.

After just one season, however, a group of boosters got tired of Harsin, and tried to undermine him. An investigation was launched, but it found nothing untoward. He got to coach a second season, but momentum within the program and on the recruiting trail was crushed.

As such, Monday’s announcement that Auburn had fired Harsin just a season and a half into his tenure was expected. He went just 9-12. Per terms of that original contract, the school owes him 70 percent of his remaining money, of $15.575 million. He’ll get half, or $7.78 million, within 30 days and then four annual payments of $1.94 million.

Auburn fired head football coach Bryan Harsin on Monday, and he's reportedly due a buyout of more than $15 million. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)
Auburn fired head football coach Bryan Harsin on Monday, and he's reportedly due a buyout of more than $15 million. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images) (Todd Kirkland via Getty Images)

That means Auburn is in the midst of paying $44.175 million for two head coaches and one staff of assistants to NOT coach Auburn football right now. And when you add the buyout cost of ousted Harsin assistants, that tag will go up by millions more.

Fifty million is not out of the question.

By any standard, even the heart of the SEC, that’s a heck of a lot of money to pay for people to not work for you.

And it perfectly represents the beauty and the beast of Auburn football.

Rich. Resourced. Passionately followed.

Impulsive. Divided. Prone to self-sabotage.

And that doesn’t even take into account the natural benefits — SEC membership, proximity to Atlanta-area talent, beautiful college town and incredible home stadium.

Or the hurdles — the Alabama machine across the way, a fully operational Georgia raiding the southern part of the state for players, a fan base that lacks sheer volume.

In the past 30 seasons, Auburn has produced three perfect seasons, won a national title, reached the title game another time, took home three SEC titles and reached the SEC championship game six times.

It’s also looking for its sixth head coach in that time span since each of the previous ones were run off the Plains for not winning enough.

When Auburn is great, it’s really great, as in national championship-great. When Auburn is a mess, it’s shelling out half a hundred (million) to fund retirement packages.

So what is it going to be this time?

Auburn also hired a new athletic director Monday, luring John Cohen from Mississippi State with a reported $1.5 million per year deal. It’s on Cohen to find the coach who can get Auburn back to what it can be.

First though, he needs to try to unite the various factions and get everyone pulling in the same direction. That’s the forever challenge at Auburn. And that is, if anything, what might scare away top candidates. The potential is always tempting. The potential problems are always daunting.

This is a particularly interesting time for the Tigers. Nick Saban has turned Alabama into a juggernaut and soaked up the lion’s share of media attention, casual fans and, of course, recruits in the state.

The Class of 2023 was an astounding one in the state of Alabama, with 12 players ranked among the top 100 nationally, per Rivals. The problem: Auburn doesn’t have a commitment from any of them — Bama has four. That needs to change. Maybe a little this year, but a lot in the years to come.

Saban has been impenetrable, of course. He’s also 71 years old. The next Auburn coach, should they last a little, might be there for the inevitable Crimson Tide transition.

So is that Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin? Auburn poached Tommy Tuberville out of Oxford years ago. Maybe, but Kiffin’s cries for an aggressive NIL collective have been answered at Ole Miss and he has the program rolling.

Could Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin be a candidate to take over the Auburn job? (Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports)
Could Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin be a candidate to take over the Auburn job? (Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports) (USA TODAY USPW / reuters)

What about Deion Sanders of Jackson State? Coach Prime has the Tigers unbeaten and is regularly landing Power 5 level recruits — including the nation’s top rated one last year from the Atlanta suburbs. He’s a huge personality who would give Auburn a pop of star power. He may also bristle with any booster who oversteps into the program.

Hugh Freeze was fired at Ole Miss for personal foibles and lying to multiple recruiting classes that NCAA sanctions weren’t going to be serious (when he knew they would). But he runs a fun offense and has Liberty winning big. In many ways, he’s the ultimate Auburn man — a high-wire act of dubious ethics who is capable of incredible highs (and depths).

There’s more, of course.

Former Baylor and Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule, former Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele (who some boosters preferred over Harsin) or maybe even alum and former great Carnell “Cadillac” Williams, who has the job in the interim and could do what Dabo Swinney once did at Clemson and win his way into the job.

Whatever it will be, it’ll be wild. Auburn never does anything quietly.

Win. Lose. Spend money. It’s all there. It’s all possible. Always.