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5 potential Auburn Tigers coaching candidates after Bryan Harsin fired

Matt Johnson
Auburn Tigers
Jake Crandall / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Auburn Tigers coaching search in 2020 ended with Bryan Harsin taking over the program, officially replacing Gus Malzahn on Dec. 22, 2020. Less than two years later, the Tigers fired Harsin as head coach.

Harsin’s fit in Auburn seemed strange at the time. The former Boise State quarterback spent the majority of his life in Boise, Idaho before jumping to Auburn. Despite not having any experience in the SEC, he jumped at the opportunity to coach the Tigers.

Why Auburn fired Bryan Harsin

Things quickly spiraled out of control. Harsin went through more than five coordinators and ESPN detailed allegations of him alienating players and assistant coaches. There also seems to be recent evidence to validate those reports considering former Auburn defensive coordinator Derek Mason took a pay cut to leave the SEC program and join the Oklahoma State Cowboys. On top of that, offensive coordinator Austin Davis resigned less than two months after being hired by the program.

Auburn’s players also had issues with Harsin. More than 20 student-athletes left the football program in the spring, with former receiver Kobe Hudson calling Harson a dictator. Former players also expressed frustration over Harsin not doing little things like taking an interest in asking about their families.

  • Bryan Harsin record (Auburn Tigers): 9-12

Burning relationships between assistant coaches and players was a big enough problem. But Auburn’s boosters and biggest supporters also don’t like that Harsin never embraced the program’s traditions, like skipping Bo Jackson’s charity golf tournament.

After all of that, Harsin was on a short leash in 2022. Following a 3-5 start, with a bowl game unlikely, the Tigers opted to move on after 21 games.

With all that in mind, let’s dive into potential Auburn Tigers coaching candidates

Evaluating five Auburn Tigers coaching candidates

Jamey Chadwell, Coastal Carolina Chanticleers head coach

NCAA Football: Coastal Carolina at Appalachian State
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

If we’re making the call, the Auburn Tigers should hire Jamey Chadwell as head coach. Coastal Carolina’s leader is responsible for building a Sun Belt powerhouse, delivering consecutive 11-2 seasons after taking over the program in 2017.

The numbers Coastal Carolina’s offense produced with Caldwell’s play-calling in 2021 are phenomenal. The Chanticleers averaged 40.9 points and nearly 500 total yards per game in 2021. They also played great situational football, averaging the 11th-most points per second half (18) and leading the country in third-down conversion rate (53.28%).

The Chanticleers are once again dominating this season. Coastal Carolina entered November with a 7-1 record, led by an offense averaging 31.9 points and 435 yards per game. Chadwell’s track record over multiple seasons speaks for itself and he would be a great addition to Auburn.

Kevin Steele, former Auburn Tigers defensive coordinator

NCAA Football: Citrus Bowl-Auburn vs Northwestern
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

This wouldn’t be a popular hire for some among the Auburn Tigers fan base. The famous ‘#StopTheSteele’ moment captured just how badly fans don’t want to see Steele leading this program. But given the state of this program currently, hiring him as head coach might be a realistic option.

Keep in mind, firing Harsin comes with a massive buyout and that limits the pool to hire the next head coach and staff. Combine a tighter budget with some of the concerns coaches have about this program – namely the boosters – and landing someone like Deion Sanders or Lane Kiffin seems unlikely.

Steele, currently serving as the Miami Hurricanes defensive coordinator, would finally get a chance to be a head coach. Auburn knows it would be hiring a great defensive mind who could turn this unit into a great group, making this a competitive team. The ceiling would be low, but the Tigers could conduct a new coaching search in 202424 with a wider pool of coaching candidates when the job looks more appealing.

Hugh Freeze, head coach, Liberty Flames

NCAA Football: Liberty at Wake Forest
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Even after signing a contract extension, Hugh Freeze could always leave Liberty for a Power 5 program. The Flames’ head coach is building a powerhouse, but his exit from Ole Miss almost certainly left him with the feeling to recapture glory at the highest level.

Freeze’s resume speaks for itself. Liberty averaged 33.6 points per game this season, with a balanced aerial attack (255 pass ypg) and ground game (180.8 rush ypg). Meanwhile, Malik Willis blossomed into an NFL-caliber quarterback under Freeze’s tutelage.

In 2022, the Flames’ offense is still torching opposing defenses. Rolling into November with a 7-1 record, Liberty is averaging 31.4 ppg and it ranks 36th in points per play (0.435), ahead of Power 5 teams like Florida, Syracuse and Mississippi State. The checkered past is really the only knock on Freeze and Auburn’s boosters might happily look past it if he can turn this program around.

Bill Clark, retired UAB Blazers head coach

NCAA Football: Independence Bowl-Brigham Young at UAB
Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Bill Clark took over a UAB football program after it shut down for two years, that’s the ultimate rebuild project. He worked a job with very little financial backing, limited resources and a football roster that needed to be constructed from the ground up. UAB went 8-5 in its first season back and delivered an 11-3 record the following year. While they haven’t quite matched those heights since, the Blazers won nine games in 2021. Immediately after he retired, UAB dropped off.

  • Bill Clark record: 49-26, 2-2 in bowl games

There’s certainly a level of risk here. Clark lacks any experience at a Power 5 program, making a jump to the SEC a massive challenge. But the 54-year-old has won at every stop in his coaching career. A finalist for the Tigers’ coaching search before Harsin got the job, Clark made it clear he wanted full control over his coaching staff hires.

It proved to be an issue the last time he spoke to Auburn, changing that chance might convince the Alabama native to come out of retirement. Of course, this would all come down to whether or not Clark wants to return to coaching in 2023 after recovering from back surgery.

Alex Golesh, Tennessee Volunteers offensive coordinator

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Pittsburgh
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

For whatever reason, Alex Golesh isn’t generating a ton of buzz in the coaching rumor mill. While the likes of Kenny Dillingham (Oregon), Jeff Grimes (Baylor) and Bill O’Brien generate buzz, one of the most influential coaches on the best team in college football isn’t receiving the same attention as his peers.

PPGTotal YPGEstimated Offensive Points per Game
Tennessee Volunteers offense (2020)21.5346.219.7
Tennessee Volunteers offense (2021)37.3462.434.8

It’s a mistake. Tennessee’s offense took off last season, with Golesh serving as the play-caller. The 38-year-old works with Heisman Trophy favorite Hendon Hooker, creating the best offense in the country that somehow makes things look easy against the likes of Alabama.

Already armed with experience learning from Jim Tressell, Matt Campbell and Josh Heupel, Golesh’s offense is even better in 2022. Tennessee ranks fifth in yards per play (7.1), fourth in red-zone scoring rate (97.37%), second in points per play (0.627) and scoring (47.1 PPG).

We don’t expect Auburn to land someone like Lane Kiffin or Deion Sanders, there are just too many red flags surrounding the program right now. But rolling the dice on a smaller name can work out, just look at the Volunteers’ rise under Heupel. If the Tigers want to take a swing, Golesh is a coach worth betting on.