New Auburn football coach Bryan Harsin believes his players should attend team meetings. What’s more, he thinks they should be on time.
Really? Showing up for a mandatory team meeting is what qualifies as commitment in the Auburn program these days?
Whenever any new leader takes over an organization — whether it’s a Fortune 500 company or a college football program — there is a period of adjustment when new standards and directions are set.
John Wooden, the most successful basketball coach in NCAA history, was famous for the first lesson he taught his players to begin every season. Before installing any offensive or defensive strategy, Wooden would educate his players on how to properly put on their socks and shoes so they would avoid getting blisters on their feet.
That kind of attention to detail is different than what Harsin is dealing with today at Auburn. Here’s what he told Nicole Auerbach of The Athletic about the current status of the Auburn program:
“We’re at the stage now where, right now, I’d say it’s probably 50-50. Some guys have figured it all out, and some are still just trying to show up on time. That’s why this is about every day. We can do something well for two or three days and we can absolutely have a disaster — five, six guys just don’t show up. Don’t show up. Where is your culture? Is it still solid or has it gone backwards? The culture piece is about expectations and behaviors … To do that day in and day out is the consistency piece. Are you disciplined enough to do that? Are you tough enough to do that? Do you believe in what we’re doing?”
How can this be what Harsin inherited at Auburn, a proud SEC program that hasn’t exactly been a disaster in recent years?
The Tigers have had a winning record every year since 2013. They have won 68 games over those eight years, for an average of 8.5 wins per season.
That’s not Alabama-level success, but it’s closer to Alabama than Vanderbilt. In fact, over those eight years, Auburn is the third- or fourth-most-successful program in the SEC.
Over the last eight years, Alabama has won 102 games (an incredible 12.75 wins per season). Georgia is clearly second with 80 wins and one appearance in the national championship game.
LSU has won more games than Auburn since 2013. The Tigers’ 74 wins include a national championship but also a losing season a year ago.
Texas A&M and Florida trail Auburn with 66 and 63 wins, respectively.
The eight-year mark is significant because that’s when Gus Malzahn returned to Auburn from Arkansas State. He immediately led Auburn to the national championship game.
He never reached those lofty heights again, but he also never had a losing season. He beat Nick Saban three times in eight years, an accomplishment no other coach can claim.
In other words, there were some disappointing Saturdays for Auburn under Malzahn. There were even some disappointing seasons. Perhaps there was even justification for firing Malzahn and paying him $21 million to go away.
But in no way was Auburn a losing program.
So, how is it that Harsin is experiencing the kind of lack of commitment that would bring down any organization?
The first possibility is what we all experienced on our first day of school. It’s natural to push the envelope to find out exactly what we can and can’t get away with under a new teacher.
But this isn’t home economics class. This is major college football. There should be accountability built in from one teammate to another, even if there are no authority figures in the building.
What Harsin describes in the Auburn program is shocking. Can the culture really be this bad? It’s hard to imagine that could be the case for a program that has consistently won in the toughest conference in college football.
Soon enough we will know. Now that spring practice is complete and coaches are no longer permitted to be at workouts with players, it’s time for the leaders of the team to take control.
If players are showing up to try to improve only when it fits their busy schedules, that will show in the product on the field this fall.
Harsin has a plan for bringing Auburn the kind of success he maintained at Boise State. Players will eventually buy in or they will be gone.
Who knew that simply convincing players to show up was the first step in restoring the culture it needed?
Randy Kennedy, who has been a leading voice on the Gulf Coast sports scene for 18 years, writes a weekly column for Lagniappe. His sports talk show airs weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on Sports Talk 99.5 and the free iHeart app.
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