The announcement of Auburn University’s new head football coach Tuesday night came out of left field.
Make that a blue field.
Boise State’s Bryan Harsin, who has compiled a 69-19 record with the Broncos the past seven seasons on their famed blue turf, agreed to become the 28th football coach in Auburn’s 127-year history that contains eight Southeastern Conference titles and consensus national championships in 1957 and 2010. Harsin is replacing Gus Malzahn, who went 68-35 the last eight years with the Tigers in a stretch that was highlighted by the 2013 SEC crown and a journey to the BCS title game that same year but averaged 4.7 losses in the seven seasons that followed.
“I’m incredibly excited and humbled for the opportunity to be at a place like Auburn University,” Harsin said through a statement. “I knew it would take a special opportunity to get me out of Boise, and Auburn is exactly that — a chance to compete at the highest level for one of the greatest programs in college football. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the coaches and players in the Southeastern Conference, but I am ready to help build a foundation at Auburn where we can consistently compete for championships.”
Weirdly enough, it marks the second time that Harsin has succeeded Malzahn as head coach at a school. But while taking over at Arkansas State is one thing, following a guy who was just paid a whopping $21 million buy out because he wasn’t winning more conference championships while sharing a division with Nick Saban is a horse of a completely different color.
As for the hire itself, as a Georgia fan, I don’t love it, but I don’t hate it, either. I’m definitely of the “it’s always preferable to hire a head coach with previous head coaching experience” school, and in that regard, Harsin certainly checks the right boxes: eight years running a program and an impressive 69-19 record directing one of the very best mid-major programs. He ain’t no Shane Beamer, that’s for sure.
I’m also guessing, based on this Dan Wolken column, that he wanted the job for himself.
Harsin, who is expected to get a significant raise from the $1.85 million package he had at Boise State, had grown clearly frustrated with his situation there and was ready to move on. Recently, the Idaho Press had obtained a series of emails in which Harsin urged Boise State to leave the Mountain West Conference and seemed to push for certain roster size commitments for 2021 that the school was hesitant to meet due to scholarships costs.
Well, one thing’s for sure. He won’t have resource problems at Auburn. Which isn’t to say he won’t have problems at all.
I have no doubt we’ll be hearing the BS spin that he was on Auburn’s radar from the get go, but that’s not the reality of things. The Auburn brass had clearly reached out to other coaches first and been rebuffed. There is a faction at the school that was lobbying for Kevin Steele to replace Malzahn. Harsin comes across as a compromise candidate, not that that’s necessarily a bad thing at a place like Auburn, where there are competing power bases fighting over control of the program.
But one thing to watch is whom Harsin hires for his staff. There have been some fairly strong rumors out there that the Auburn brass insisted that any new coach had to commit to retaining Steele and Rodney Garner from Gus’ staff, which is why the likes of Napier turned down the opportunity. I don’t know if those rumors are true, but we’ll know soon enough. (Keeping Steele on board, in particular, seems quasi-suicidal, but would be an indication of how badly Harsin wanted out of Boise, I guess.)
Garner brings up another potential problem. Harsin has been a decent recruiter at BSU, but he’s not in Idaho anymore. Here’s what Barrett Sallee, in a piece that’s largely a cheerleading effort over the hire, has to say about that:
Sure, Harsin has limited knowledge of the SEC recruiting landscape. There’s no denying that. That’s why hiring a staff with deep recruiting ties is imperative for him to break through that glass ceiling that Malzahn couldn’t crack. That will come later.
Sure, Barrett. It’s not as if Malzahn didn’t have that kind of staff and look where it got him: year after year of being behind Alabama and Georgia. Keeping Garner only lets Harsin tread water, so unless he’s got some magic way of raiding Saban’s and Smart’s staffs (Auburn fans are already predicting he’ll be going after Georgia’s McGee), it’s hard to see grounds for improvement. It’s also worth mentioning in that regard that he’s already behind the eight ball with the 2021 class.
But, 69-19! Even that comes with a cautionary note. His winning percentage at Boise is an impressive .793, but his immediate predecessors, Chris Petersen (.885) and Dan Hawkins (.828) were even better, and there’s a faint sense that the program simply isn’t the same juggernaut it once was.
That being said, this is Auburn, a program that’s been known to catch lightning in a bottle now and then. I mocked the Chizik hire, but they got a national championship banner out of it before… well, you know what. And Chizik’s Iowa State track record wasn’t in the same zip code as Harsin’s. So there’s that.
I dunno. It’s Auburn, so anything’s possible. But, bottom line, it just feels like Auburn spent over twenty million dollars to replace Gus Malzahn with someone who’s going to do about as well as Gus Malzahn did.