Buckle up, Bryan Harsin. You're not in Boise, anymore
Steve Sarkisian, Hugh Freeze, Bill Clark, Billy Napier and uncle Marty all reportedly bypassed the opportunity to succeed Gus Malzahn at Auburn. By the time Tuesday night rolled around, it was evident that whoever was hired wasn’t going to be the Tigers’ first choice, whether they admitted it or not.
Fittingly out of nowhere, in stepped the guy from Boise.
Bryan Harsin is Auburn’s next coach. He wasn’t choice No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3 on anybody’s list. Give him a couple of years in the SEC and he still might not be choice No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3. Fortunately for Harsin, if that does happen, he’ll probably at least have a $20 million buyout to fall back on.
Harsin, as soon as he’s able to get his feet wet, will move past the reality that he landed this job because others who boast stronger SEC ties turned it down.
It’s not his fault that Auburn’s search played out like a 6-year-old trying to make dinner. What is his responsibility is what he does with this sort of out-of-nowhere opportunity.
I don’t say that to diminish the 44-year-old Harsin or treat him as an outsider, but the guy spent 22 of the last 25 years at Boise State. That’s so far from Auburn that if you google “Boise to Auburn,” you’ll instead get directions from Boise to Auburn, Washington (it’s roughly 500 miles). From Boise to Auburn, Alabama, it’s a casual 33-hour drive. Lord knows he’ll get constant reminders of that the second he arrives on the Plains.
In a weird way, Harsin’s experience is actually part-Malzahn, part-Gene Chizik. Harsin is succeeding Malzahn for a second time. He did that at Arkansas State in 2013. Like Chizik, Harsin was also a coordinator at Texas before getting his first FBS head coaching gig.
Now, it’s up to Harsin to learn from the triumphs and failures of his 2 predecessors. For starters, don’t call 6-4 “solid” in any way, even if that’s not exactly what you meant. Trust Gus on that.
Like Chizik and Malzahn learned, understand that success can be fleeting. One year at Auburn, you’re beating Alabama and looking like college football’s Cinderella, and the next year, you’re wondering if you’re going to finish with a winning record.
Neither Chizik nor Malzahn were the top choices when they took over. One could argue that both proved people wrong by getting to a national title game. One could also argue they never could reach the high bar they set for themselves early in their respective Auburn tenures. Hence, the split opinions among the fan base.
Oh, that’s something Harsin totally needs to be ready for. As long as Harsin doesn’t win an SEC title or go 5-7 in Year 1 — it’s Auburn so never rule anything out — it’s only a matter of time before there’s a split decision among the Tiger faithful. That’s to be expected.
Harsin will only get some supporters if he’s able to do something he’s never had to do. That is, recruit at an elite level. And no, I’m not talking about finishing with the top class in the Mountain West, which Harsin did on an annual basis at Boise State. He’s in the big leagues now. Fail to recruit a top-10 class annually and be prepared to answer questions about why Auburn’s talent level is slipping.
In a strange way, Harsin is in a similar spot to Dan Mullen in 2017. Mullen wasn’t the first or second choice at Florida. The lack of big-game success made some cautious, and the lack of recruiting success in the ultra-competitive state of Florida was part of it. Before Mullen arrived in Gainesville, he had only signed 1 4-star recruit from the state of Florida to come to Mississippi State. Go figure it was actually current Auburn quarterback Cord Sandberg … who played minor league baseball instead of going to Starkville.
Mullen has worked tirelessly to establish those connections in the Sunshine State. It’s still a work in progress, and when he doesn’t win big games, that’s always part of the conversation about his upside as a coach. But it’s an important work in progress.
That’s the challenge for Harsin. Sure, he recruited briefly at Texas and he’s been able to develop some talented quarterbacks at a respected program like Boise State (that’s similar to Mullen as the OC at Florida and then the head coach at MSU). Now, though, it’s a different grading scale.
Harsin wouldn’t have accepted this job without that knowledge. Obviously, a major priority in order to establish those connections in the region is building a staff who already has that. Let’s see how thick that contact list is.
The good news is that while Harsin might be perceived as an SEC outsider because of his roots out West, this is a results-based-business. It could only take a year of the offensive-minded head coach to have his brand of offense established. After all, it’s Auburn. People notice when the Tigers are good.
People, of course, also notice when the Tigers are bad. This isn’t Boise State, where a 7-1 conference season is a given. This is the program where 4-loss seasons have been a given, along with nearly annual reminders of Alabama’s dominance. Harsin would love to be the guy to provide that stability.
Outside of Kirby Smart at Georgia, nobody has really been able to coexist alongside Alabama with that level of competence in the SEC. Smart isn’t in the same division, though. Go figure that Malzahn’s firing made Ed Orgeron the longest-tenured non-Nick Saban coach in the SEC West.
It’ll take a bit to see whether Harsin has the ability to weather the storm like Malzahn did for 8 years. In this era, it’s no small feat to reach 8 years in the SEC, especially at a program with legitimate 21st century success like Auburn.
Expectations for Harsin won’t be associated with his ranking among top potential coaching hires. He won’t be able to use his lack of Southern roots as an excuse, and yo-yo offenses won’t fly, either.
Auburn is a unique place. It’s also a special place where coaches like Chizik stay even after getting fired. It’s a program that has always found ways to recruit without splashy head coaching hires. All had deeper Southern roots as Harsin. Again, that won’t be a crutch. It’s now the hurdle that Auburn’s new coach must overcome.
Harsin got away from his roots to pursue this opportunity. He stepped outside of his comfort zone and into a job that’s seemingly always on the hot seat. Now, he gets to make it his own.
A long road awaits, and it’s a bit longer than the one from Boise to Auburn, Washington.