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Harsin ready to make SEC debut at Auburn

by Bob Holt | July 24, 2021 at 12:00 a.m.

HOOVER, Ala. — Bryan Harsin has replaced Gus Malzahn again.

First Harsin was hired as Arkansas State University’s coach in 2013 after Malzahn left for Auburn. Now Harsin is following Malzahn as Auburn’s coach.

“The weirdness of Gus and Bryan Harsin, I can’t explain that,” Harsin said with a laugh at SEC Media Days this week. “I’m not sure there will be another one. I think we’re the only two that have probably done that ever.”

Harsin said he first met Malzahn — who grew up in Fort Smith and was a longtime Arkansas high school coach — in 2007.

At that time, Malzahn was in his first season as Tulsa’s offensive coordinator after having the same position at the University of Arkansas in 2006. Harsin was Boise State’s offensive coordinator.

Harsin said he had read Malzahn’s book on the hurry-up, no-huddle offense but wanted to know more. So Harsin and Boise State coach Chris Peterson traveled to Tulsa to talk with Malzahn.

“There were a lot of great things in [the book] and he’s a great offensive mind, so I wanted to go see him,” Harsin said. “We got a chance to sit down for a couple days and talk football, talk about tempo, talk about how he does things.

“We took a lot away from that, and that spring we installed some of that no-huddle and some of those ideas. So I’ve always admired Gus. I’ve always thought he’s a great offensive mind.”

Malzahn led Auburn to the SEC championship in 2013 and a national championship matchup with Florida State, which the Seminoles won 34-31 as the Tigers finished 12-2.

Auburn continued to go to bowls under Malzahn, but the Tigers lost at least four games in each of his last seven seasons. He was fired after last season’s 6-4 record against a 10-game SEC-only schedule and is now Central Florida’s coach.

Auburn Athletic Director Allen Greene hired Harsin, who like Malzahn left ASU after one season. Harsin became the coach at Boise State, his alma mater.

Harsin, a Boise, Idaho, native, led the Broncos to a 69-19 record the previous seven seasons after Peterson left for Washington.

“In Boise, we were good,” Harsin said. “We had just built a home. Our mindset was this is what we want, this is where we want to be, where we want to stay, and this is what we’re going to do.”

Then Harsin got a call from Greene.

“It piqued my interest more than any other place,” Harsin said. “And a lot because of him, a lot because of the [Auburn] creed, a lot because of this conference as well.”

A raise from $1.85 million annually at Boise to $5.25 million annually at Auburn with a six-year contract also helped persuade Harsin to leave the comfort of winning big in his hometown to take on a new challenge in the SEC.

“I know that the microscope is a lot different at Auburn, but that was part of it, too,” Harsin said. “As a competitor, this is why you come to Auburn. This is why you want to be in the SEC. You want to play against the best.”

Missouri Coach Eli Drinkwitz was Harsin’s offensive coordinator at ASU and Boise State.

“I owe a tremendous amount of debt to Coach Harsin and the opportunities he gave me, and really a lot of the things we do as a program are a direct result of the things that I learned from him and the way he implemented them at Arkansas State and Boise State,” Drinkwitz said. “He’s got a tremendous plan. The thing about Coach Harsin is he always has a plan for everything he does.

“You’re going to see that unfold at Auburn. I’m not up here to put undue expectations on anybody else. I think the Auburn fan base does that well enough by themselves.”

Expectations always are high among Auburn fans, but the Tigers were picked to finish fifth in SEC West in a preseason media poll released Friday.

Auburn defensive lineman Tony Fair, a graduate transfer from Alabama-Birmingham, has a different opinion. He tweeted a video Sunday from the Tigers’ photo shoot with the caption, “We comin’ to take the head off the elephant” — an obvious reference to defending national champion Alabama.

Quarterback Bo Nix and linebacker Owen Pappoe, juniors who represented Auburn at SEC Media Days, endorsed Fair’s tweet.

“I love it,” Pappoe said. “I love the confidence. It’s the biggest rivalry in the country, in my opinion. It’s just what comes with it.”

Alabama beat Auburn 42-13 last season, but Nix and Pappoe started as freshmen when the Tigers beat the Crimson Tide 48-45.

“Obviously, it’s a confident quote, but I hope [Fair] is coming to take the head off the elephant,” Nix said. “I hope he’s not coming to get the head taken off the Tiger.

“I think that actually I like the quote. I think it’s important because we’re not scared of Alabama. I know that a lot of people want us to be scared, but we’re really not.”

Auburn will play Alabama at home in Jordan-Hare Stadium on Nov. 27.

“It’s going to be one of the biggest, loudest games of the year,” Nix said. “It always is.”

Auburn’s opener against Akron on Sept. 4 won’t be Harsin’s first game in Jordan-Hare Stadium. His second game at ASU was a 38-9 road loss to Auburn and Malzahn.

“I remember going into that environment, and as you look up in the stands, you can’t hear a thing,” Harsin said. “It’s shaking on the field, and you’re trying to get a play out to your quarterback. It was difficult.”

Harsin said he’s looking forward to a raucous crowd at Auburn cheering for his team.

“I got a chance to experience that in a bad way when I was at Arkansas State,” he said. “So I’ve got a little taste of that, and now those folks are going to be on our side.

“And I want to be able to be part of a program that, when you win, your fans go crazy and go downtown and we toilet paper trees. I mean, how awesome is that?

“That’s why you come to Auburn. That’s why you’re in the SEC, because it does mean more.”

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