Auburn Makes Their Choice
Can a West Coast/Outsider Hire Work in the SEC?
After a 9 day coaching vacancy and search that seemed to meander and even go off the rails with internal power-struggling, Auburn University announced that they had found their man – Boise State Head Coach Bryan Harsin. Harsin – who grew up, played and coached in Boise for nearly his entire career (with a notable three year exception which we’ll get into) – had an excellent win-loss record of 69-19 as a head coach, all but one year of it at Boise State after taking over for Chris Petersen who really built it into a consistent power.
Now – the immediate skepticism presented by many is that Harsin has no Southeastern Conference coaching experience and no experience recruiting in the Southeast. The second point isn’t completely true. Harsin spent two years as co-offensive coordinator at Texas – not an SEC school but certainly a place that recruits, say, Florida and Louisiana. Then he took the head coaching job at Arkansas State in the Sun Belt. His one-year record was good but then “mama called” at Boise State after Petersen left for Washington. So Harsin has some experience in the South/Southeast…but clearly not the typical background of SEC head coaching hires. So, let’s look at how have hires from the West or other sections of country fared in SEC history?
The first hire that came to my mind as a historical parallel was Pat Dye coming to Auburn from Wyoming in 1981. Dye’s hire shifted the balance of power in the Alabama-Auburn rivalry for basically a decade and helped Auburn reclaim national prominence. From 1983-1989, the Tigers were basically a top 10 and occasionally top 5 team and went to New Year’s Day bowl games like the Sugar and Cotton multiple times. They narrowly missed out on a national title in 1983. In 1989 they ruined Alabama’s perfect season in the Iron Bowl, the first one ever played in Auburn. (Jordan-Hare has had weird juju/magic for the Tide ever since).
But Dye had only been at Wyoming for one year after spending 6 as head coach at East Carolina. He was from Georgia and had been an assistant under Bear Bryant at Alabama before that. He had strong connections and was instantly a hit on the recruiting trail – of course the fact that he wasn’t too concerned with how Auburn “persuaded” players to come was a big help. Now, he did bring a powerful and fast wishbone offense that got the Tigers competing with Alabama and other Southeastern Conference powers within two years. The Tide ran the wishbone but Dye innovated it. Is there a parallel here with Harsin bringing a very modern but not-spread passing game and ISO run based scheme from Boise State?
A non-SEC but regional example that Auburn fans should hope to emulate is Dennis Erickson, a coach who had been in the Northwest for basically his entire career coming to Miami in 1989 from Washington State and continuing the Miami dynasty, winning two more National Championships and playing for a third. Miami was already at or near the top of the sport, but Erickson reinvigorated Miami’s offense to more four and five wide receiver explosiveness while keeping their nasty defensive reputation.
However, there are some examples of hires that were unsuccessful, some disastrously so. The worst – although it didn’t concern the football field so much – was Mike Price’s short-lived “tenure” at Alabama where he was hired out of the blue (sort of like this hire) to replace Dennis Franchione who had abruptly bolted for Texas A&M after two seasons. Price was not ready for the glare of the spotlight in Tuscaloosa and was fired after being discovered partying with exotic dancers on the university’s dime in Pensacola after a golf tournament. It wasn’t the first offense and he was fired before every coaching a game. Franchione himself had mostly coached in New Mexico and Texas before arriving and while his second year featured 10 wins for an Alabama team ,he and his wife did not like the constant, year-round attention and the fact that with the Tide heading into probation he would be set up to lose for a couple of years. That is why the Texas A&M job was so appealing.
Perhaps two more recent and comparable examples of coaches coming to the SEC with no regional experience are Bret Bielema (Wisconsin to Arkansas) and Derek Mason (Stanford to Vanderbilt). It’s admittedly hard to judge whether lack of success at perennial underdog Vandy has to do with regional experience or not, but Bielema had a bad start then a couple modestly good bowl seasons before collapsing and being fired.
The other thing working against Harsin is the belief that Boise State coaches who take other jobs have tended to do poorly trying to install the same type of program in the Power 5. Dan Hawkins and before him Dirk Koetter were not able to turnaround Colorado and Arizona State respectively while later coaches had more success. However, I’ve heard it suggested by some that Chris Petersen (who Harsin replaced) underachieved somehow at Washington. That is – in my view – completely inaccurate. Petersen led Washington to the College Football Playoff in 2016, the last PAC-12 team to go, and then followed up with Fiesta and Rose Bowl appearances. While they didn’t win any of those three games, having two PAC-12 championships and other strong seasons, mixed with a couple of 8 win campaigns is hardly failure, particularly when Washington had not gotten about 7 wins for several years before Petersen arrived. Still, that was a regional fit – Boise to Seattle.
All in all - In my evaluation (and I’m a self-identified Alabama homer who wants no success for Auburn) - I would grade this hire on its face as a solid B+ (and depending on how recruiting closes perhaps an A- to start). You have to consider the situation which saw big name, sure-fire possibilities limited – Urban Meyer was not coming to Auburn, there was no “Jimbo Fisher to Texas A&M” – and there was a lot of concern that candidates would be just a cover for what powerful boosters wanted to do (hire the current defensive coordinator Kevin Steele). The real question will be can Harsin elevate the program beyond 8-9 wins on average AND continue beating Alabama at the same rate or greater than Gus Malzahn did. It’s a tall order but that’s how Auburn folks will evaluate Harsin. The Tigers being able to hire a very good-to-great G5 head coach like Harsin with a record of beating Power 5 opponents after nearly two weeks of uncertainty shows that they are an attractive program and probably a top-20 job in the country.