It had to be an outsider because there was no one left on the inside who hadn’t chosen a side.
Auburn fired head coach Gus Malzahn after eight seasons as head coach in December, and it did so in the most Auburn manner possible: with a controversial maneuver orchestrated by angry boosters and carried out with seemingly no foresight or plan. Malzahn, 68–35 all-time on The Plains with two SEC West titles, one conference championship, a BCS National Championship appearance and the best record of any active head coach against Nick Saban, was fired after a 6–4 pandemic-shortened season and owed over $20 million in buyout money — half of it immediately.
Compounding matters — and increasing the Auburn-ness of the entire affair — were reports that Malzahn had been ousted by a particular faction of monied supporters who wanted to elevate then-Tigers defensive coordinator Kevin Steele to full-time head coach.
That’s when athletic director Allen Greene moved not only to end Auburn’s infighting but also to wrestle control of the program away from warring booster factions, tapping Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin to replace Malzahn. Harsin is charged with overhauling a program that once led the entire sport in offensive innovation and repairing — to whatever extent possible — Auburn’s “Family” mantra.
“I think at the time you had a lot of people who had thrown their hands up and said, ‘They’re never going to get this right,’” SEC Network analyst and former Auburn offensive lineman Cole Cubelic says. “There was a lot of nervous energy, and a lot of folks tuned it out because it wasn’t going the way they wanted it to. You also had substantial people involved indicating they would create legit backlash if it wasn’t going to be their guy.”
Enter Harsin, the man who had succeeded Malzahn once before. Malzahn’s one-year stint at Arkansas State ended when he got the Auburn job; Harsin followed Malzahn by spending one year of his own in Jonesboro, only to be hired by his alma mater, Boise State, the following offseason.
If anyone, Auburn fan or industry pundit alike, tells you they saw this second Harsin-for-Malzahn switch coming, they’re lying.
“I think some people at Auburn were hoping it would be a coach who hadn’t been discussed to that point because an unknown would be better than either the names they’d heard associated with the job or what kind of hire they thought could be possible based on what was out there,” Cubelic says.
Harsin is inarguably a breath of fresh air, both to Auburn and the Southeastern Conference. The 44-year-old managed a 69–19 record at Boise and a staggering 45–8 record in the Mountain West Conference. What Harsin helped build as an assistant under former Broncos head coach Chris Petersen, he forged into a standard as head coach: The Broncos were the class of Group of 5. Winning the conference was a given; going undefeated and challenging for College Football Playoff consideration was the expectation.
Harsin isn’t what every single power broker in and around Auburn wanted, but no one head coach could ever meet that impossible standard. Harsin, at least a few months in, is seeking to quell any doubts by establishing transparency with Auburn’s famously vociferous fan base and their understandably high expectations in the Nick Saban era.
“The most important part of expectations is communicating who I am,” Harsin says. “That started early on through the process of the coaching search. There’s a lot of things players get to read because your résumé is out there. So, they understand at least where you came from, and some of the things you’ve done.”
If there’s a misconception among discerning SEC football fans (and Auburn faithful), it’s that Harsin is some kind of trick-play enthusiast or that he operates on the fringes of what Southern fans consider to be big-boy football. That perception is a product of bad intel. From his first day on campus, Harsin has promised to hew a lot closer to Pat Dye than Gus Malzahn, which is likely why a lot of Tiger fans have warmed to their new hire.
“They’re going to build everything on that offense from the run game out. Inside zone stuff, run by SEC-caliber dudes. If there’s a misconception about Boise being a ‘finesse’ or ‘trick play’ team, that doesn’t exist in coaching,” a rival SEC coordinator says.
“They’re Jay Ajayi and Doug Martin and Alexander Mattison, so that should play well at a place where it’s about Bo Jackson and Cadillac [Williams].”
Harsin has also fortified his new staff with familiar SEC faces. Former South Carolina and Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, once a Harsin foil as head coach at Colorado State, will call plays on offense, while former Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason chose to coach the Auburn defense over LSU and multiple other schools that pursued him.
If there’s an early concern on The Plains, it’s recruiting. Harsin has outfitted his staff with SEC veteran coordinators (as well as three former players), but he’s never gone to war over personnel in the nastiest, most talented corner of the game.
“Our message [in recruiting] is the same as it is with our team,” Harsin says. “We haven’t played a game, we haven’t been in a season, but here is what we are expecting from the players and everybody in this program. We explain to recruits our expectations and what they could have a chance to be a part of. You want the right people to be a part of the program. They also want to come into a program that’s going to fit them. And at the end of the day, it comes down to fit.”
Of course, a major reason the Auburn job opened in the first place is a level of expectations that might be unattainable. It’s possible that Harsin could be exactly what Tigers fans who grew frustrated with his predecessor wanted — an offensive-minded coach with a more physical, run-heavy scheme and the same elite defense — and still not satisfy them.
“I don’t know if the fans have had enough time to get to know him,” Cubelic says. “And people will make their decisions situationally. They’ll form an opinion based on a single game or a single play, maybe. But the one thing I don’t know if most Auburn fans will ever have the ability to see, because it’s inside the program, is the consistency. He will be the same guy every day. That’s the part of his background and his demeanor that makes him a good fit. His expectation of his players — to the details, to being the same, consistent guy every day, demanding full effort and attention no matter what — I think Auburn fans would appreciate that.”
Before Harsin coaches a game in the SEC, it’s impossible to prognosticate whether Auburn fans will warm to a new coach from outside the SEC at the height of the Saban Era. But it’s likely because of these seemingly insane circumstances (a demand to keep some kind of pace with Alabama) that Harsin got the job. There’s no complex formula. If there’s a path for the Tigers to win the league, it will have to be adhered to steadily and faithfully.
“Everything we do as a program has an expectation that is a simple one: It’s your personal best,” Harsin says. “It’s your personal best at whatever you need to do, or asked to do. The expectations are simple. They’re hard to do. That’s what everyone on the staff and what I expect from myself every day. Do it to the best of your ability every single day and be consistent as best you can.”
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