Auburn’s wait is over, and the head coaching job has been filled. After more than a week of rumor, with Tiger fans waiting and waiting, Bryan Harsin was named the school’s newest head football coach.
He’ll be the school’s 27th full-time coach (not counting interims) in history. He’s the fourth coach since the turn of the millennium, and the sixth since the first expansion of the SEC in 1992.
quotes from new Auburn HC Bryan Harsin, AD Allen Greene and school president Jay Gogue pic.twitter.com/yIkr1xrmih— Justin Ferguson (@JFergusonAU) December 23, 2020
This entire saga ended up being a little more long-winded than we expected when the news came out on Sunday that Gus Malzahn was being let go. Kevin Steele almost immediately became one of the hot names to replace him as head coach, but before anything concrete could take place, things muddied with another of the candidates, forcing everyone to step back a bit. The PAC-12 announced that Oregon would be playing in the conference championship game opposite USC because COVID restrictions had sidelined Washington. With that news, Auburn’s other original serious candidate, Mario Cristobal, was unavailable until the end of the game Friday night, and the process slowed.
Over the next couple of days, it was surmised that Auburn had made an unofficial offer to Cristobal (ostensibly to avoid what happened with Tennessee a couple of years ago when they were rejected by nearly everyone before hiring Jeremy Pruitt), and Oregon had countered. Cristobal was in the midst of contract negotiations for an extension, and it was thought that both sides had entered somewhat of a bidding war for his services.
Meanwhile, in the athletic department at Auburn, word was released of a search committee consisting of names such as Bo Jackson, Randy Campbell, Quentin Riggins, and Michelle McKenna. Who knows how much of a role this group played when it was fairly apparent that the candidates were narrowed down pretty quickly, and especially with everyone already having familiarity with Steele. We also heard rumblings of a split faction in the athletic department between groups wanting either Steele or Cristobal.
Finally, Cristobal signed an extension with Oregon and word got out that Kevin Steele may have been part of a coup to get Gus Malzahn out the door because certain coaches weren’t happy with the way the program had been run. Late last week, a few names were leaked as possible interviewees — Steele, Steve Sarkisian, Billy Napier, Tony Elliott, and Brent Venables — and that interviews were to begin on Sunday after championship games had been completed. Napier apparently interviewed Sunday, and impressed the search committee.
Monday it was announced that Kevin Steele was out for the running of head coach, then Billy Napier was out, and Bill Clark was out, and Brent Venables was out, and Tony Elliott didn’t want to interview, and Lane Kiffin wasn’t coming, and a Hugh Freeze rumor didn’t really materialize, and then out of nowhere came — MUSCLES.
Getting Harsin to come to Auburn is honestly quite a shock, because this guy is Boise blue through and through. He’s from Boise. Played at Boise (quarterback of course), spent his first season post-grad at Eastern Oregon coaching running backs and wide receivers, and then went to Boise for the next decade. He started out as a grad assistant for a year in 2001 before coaching tight ends under Dan Hawkins from 2002-2005. After Hawkins left for Colorado, Chris Petersen got the head job and Harsin got the offensive coordinator position.
Harsin has been a name in the coaching game ever since that first season running the offense. Harsin’s first season at BSU was the magical 2006 season, where he served as offensive coordinator and quarterback coach for Jared Zabranksy and an offense that led to a 13-0 record and the 2nd-highest scoring output in the country.
Over the next four seasons as offensive coordinator, Boise’s offense finished 4th (2007), 12th (2008), 1st (2009), and 2nd (2010) in scoring, and it vaulted him to the job in Austin where he led the Longhorns’ offense under Mack Brown. In his first season with UT, the Longhorns had the 55th-best scoring offense, which improved to 23rd in the land the next year. After those two seasons, he succeeded Gus Malzahn at Arkansas State after Gus came to Auburn. Now he’ll follow Gus once again.
WHAT HE’LL BRING TO THE TABLE
If Auburn fans were getting restless with the offense, they’ll likely be pleased with this hire. Harsin was the architect (along with Chris Petersen) of one of the most potent attacks in America when he was offensive coordinator for the Broncos from 2006-2010.
Here’s a great article outlining some of the basic concepts of what Harsin likes to do with his offense, but the main gist is that he’s got everything at his disposal.
Boise is an offense that throws everything at you to accomplish one thing- gain an advantage in numbers, spacing, or leverage at the point of attack. The Broncos use spread concepts, pro concepts, motion, and every formation they can think of. They will attack a defense by using motion and formations to target the weak points a defense’s alignment and their adjustments to motion.
Harsin doesn’t have play-calling duties anymore, he gave those up back when he took the head job at Boise, so he’ll be more focused on organization and management of the team, but the offense is still definitely his, and there will be a ton of input directly from him on how it’s run.
One thing that he was able to do at Boise was use his scheme to outmaneuver Power Five opponents time and again. In his first game in 2014, the Broncos lost to Ole Miss (probably the best Rebel team this decade), but rebounded to take a Fiesta Bowl win over Arizona later that year. In 2015, the Broncos beat Washington and Virginia, before winning games against Oregon State and Washington State in 2016. They took down Oregon in 2017, and Florida State last year.
We’ll have to see what he can do in terms of recruiting in the South, but it’ll be a strong likelihood that some of the current staff remains, particularly on defense. Now, with the rumors abounding over the past week, that might not be what the average fan likes hearing, but we’ll need someone to help him get his footing on the trail. Plus, aside from a couple of games this season, the defense has been the bellcow over the past few years carrying this team.
WHAT HE’LL FACE RIGHT OFF THE BAT
Obviously, the annual question will be “Can you beat Alabama and Georgia?”
Well, that’s not easy, but at least you get a chance to do it at Auburn every single season.
In addition, the 2021 schedule won’t be easy, but you do get the two biggest games at home. The non-conference slate includes Akron, Penn State, Georgia State, and Alabama State. Three of those should be easy victories, and the trip to Happy Valley could end up being a statement game early in his tenure.
In the SEC, you’ll get the usual suspects in the SEC West, with home games against the Mississippi schools, Alabama, and Georgia. Auburn will go on the road to face LSU, Arkansas, Texas A&M, and South Carolina out of the East.
Two biggest rivals at home, a down LSU, a Texas A&M losing some top talent, and a Penn State coming off of a rough year. That’s as easy as it’s going to get for you at this point as the head coach at Auburn.
He’s going to have a team filled with some veteran talent, including a junior (third-year sophomore? Not sure how COVID classes work) Bo Nix and plenty of returning starters from an offensive line that got better as the season progressed. Tank Bigsby may be the best back in the SEC in 2021, and the receivers have shown promise this season as well, and could be elite if Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz both return. On defense, there will be linebackers that are already stars, and young talent up front and in the secondary.
2021 could be set up for a very solid start to his Auburn career, but he’ll have to address the talent issues that have reared their heads over the past couple of recruiting classes. If he does that, and gets Auburn closer to the level of their rivals, he could make this work for a long time.
WHAT’LL IT COST AUBURN?
Aside from the $21M that Auburn is shelling out over the future to send Gus Malzahn off, there could be some substantial costs. As far as buying out current assistants, I’m sure that Harsin would want to bring in his own staff on the offensive side of the ball, so we’re not currently sure who’d be staying on.
Harsin’s buyout is only $250K, so Auburn is getting the bargain in that regard, and he’s only making $1.75M per year at Boise. To get him in the upper half of SEC money, he’d need to be making at least $5.014M (Mark Stoops’ salary for 7th place in the league), but Auburn would likely double his current mark at least and put him close to $4M per year with incentives to start.
Here’s to the new coach, War Eagle!