Bryan Harsin’s year in Arkansas helped shape his vision for Auburn –

Arkansas State head coach Bryan Harsin talks with his players prior to the start of an NCAA college football game in Auburn, Ala., Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)AP
Bryan Harsin sat in his office in Jonesboro, Ark., for “probably two or three days” in early January 2013.
Less than a month earlier, Harsin was named head coach at Arkansas State — taking over the program following Gus Malzahn’s departure for Auburn — and now he was finally settling into his new digs in the days after the Red Wolves wrapped up their season in the bowl in Mobile.
For Harsin, this was something new. He came up through the coaching ranks at his alma mater, Boise State, spending a decade on staff with the Broncos — first as a graduate assistant, then as tight ends coach, then as quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator — learning under the likes of Dan Hawkins, Dirk Koetter and Chris Petersen. That was followed by two seasons as co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Texas working under Mack Brown. Arkansas State, though, was Harsin’s first head coaching position and an opportunity to shape a program in his image.
“That first year as a head coach, there’s a lot of things you think you’re prepared for that you’re not,” Harsin said. “You know the X’s and O’s part of it; there’s a plan, there’s a process — those types of things, but there’s a lot more that comes with the head coach position that’s not always just football driven that you also have to be very aware of and you want to do a very good job in those other areas.”
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Harsin only spent one season in Jonesboro before Boise State came knocking and hired him to run the program he knew so well, but that 2013 season with Arkansas State helped shape his worldview as a head coach. On Saturday, Harsin will return to the state of Arkansas for a game for the first time since that one-year stint with the Red Wolves as Auburn (4-2, 1-1 SEC) takes on No. 17 Arkansas (4-2, 1-2) at 11 a.m. in Fayetteville, Ark.
“I learned a lot that year,” Harsin said. “I sat in my office for probably two or three days once the last staff left and the bowl game was over, looking to hire staff and bringing people in and just thinking through a lot of stuff that you wouldn’t really think about unless you’re in that position. That was a great year.”
Harsin’s staff at Arkansas State included some familiar names that have been with him at various points throughout his career, like current Auburn tight ends coach Brad Bedell and strength coach Jeff Pitman. It also included one current SEC head coach (Missouri’s Eli Drinkwitz as offensive coordinator) and two other current SEC assistants in Bush Hamdan (Missouri’s offensive coordinator) and Blake Baker (LSU’s linebackers coach).
The Red Wolves went 7-5 in Harsin’s lone season, finishing as co-champions of the Sun Belt before Harsin left for his alma mater, where he spent the next seven seasons.
“I definitely think Bryan’s one of the most organized, detailed people that I’ve ever been around and has a great command for making sure everybody is on, doing what they need to be doing,” Drinkwitz said. “He’s a very effective executive, and I think you could also very much believe in what Bryan’s pillars are for his program. He’s very adamant about making sure everybody’s on the same page and pushing in the same direction.”
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Drinkwitz said that he owes a “tremendous” amount to Harsin, who he also spent two years with at Boise State following that season at Arkansas State. Now in his second year as Missouri’s head coach, Drinkwitz said a lot of what his program does and how he implements things is influenced by the way Harsin ran his teams at Arkansas State and Boise State.
“(You’re) making sure that everybody on your staff has the ability to come in there and do their very best work,” Harsin said. “You’re trying to, hopefully, create an environment like that. That, in itself, is a challenge with players, coaches, just different personnel that you have…. That was a good opportunity to be with a really good football team and to be in a place where you could develop players in an environment that allowed the staff and I to grow and develop ourselves as coaches. That was a great experience.”
Now Harsin returns to the Natural State midway through Year 1 at Auburn, his first opportunity running a Power 5 program. His new team has experienced some success — like snapping a 20-year losing streak on the road against LSU — but is still a work in progress, having dropped both its games against ranked opponents. Another opportunity comes Saturday against 17th-ranked Arkansas, as Harsin is trying to apply many of those same lessons he learned in 2013 to his venture on the Plains.
“There’s a vision for where we want Auburn football to be,” Harsin said. “That vision is every single year we have an opportunity to be considered as one of the teams to play for a championship and ultimately to play for a national championship. I think that’s why you come to a place like Auburn because you want to be able to do that. That’s a lot of work, but that’s the vision for our program.”
Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.
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