Photo courtesy of Auburn athletics
Auburn didn’t fire Gus Malzahn for losing. As a matter of fact, Gus Malzahn never had a losing season in eight years as Auburn’s head coach.
Instead, Malzahn was fired for falling behind Auburn’s rivals on and off the field. A lack of developing impact players on the offensive side of the ball and losing big game after big game drove fans and the university to a breaking point.
After a 6-5 season with a loss to 2-8 South Carolina and blowout losses to rivals Georgia and Alabama, Auburn had enough. As a result, the Tigers experienced a change in leadership for the first time since 2013.
In comes Bryan Harsin, who has served as Boise State’s head coach for the past seven seasons. Outside of some stops at Texas and Arkansas State, Harsin has spent majority of his playing and coaching career as a Bronco. After graduating from Boise State in 1999, Harsin returned as an assistant in 2001.
He was then promoted to tight ends coach, where he spent three seasons before being promoted to quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator in 2005. His two other stops were a 2-year stop as co-offensive coordinator at Texas and a 1-year stint as head coach at Arkansas State in 2013.
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Look at his track record and Harsin has done nothing but win. In his five seasons as offensive coordinator at Boise State, the Broncos put together a jaw-dropping 61-5 record. Harsin helped coach quarterback Kellen Moore into a Heisman Trophy finalist.
Moore is now the offensive coordinator of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys. At Arkansas State, Harsin capped off his lone season with the Red Wolves with a share of the Sun Belt championship. Most recently, Harsin finished his Boise State career with a 69-19 record.
During that time, Harsin led Boise State to five double-digit win seasons and three Mountain West titles. The Broncos reached the Mountain West title game in all but one year under Harsin.
Now, Harsin will walk into one of the most difficult jobs in America. Still, the hopes are high.
So, what will it take for Harsin to succeed at Auburn? Well, it comes down to these three things…
The SEC is unlike any other conference in America. If you recruit well, you win. If you don’t, you lose. It is really that simple.
Sure, a big part of recruiting is the culture you build and share with recruits. In order to do that, you have to build a staff that has the history of recruiting well. However, there is an even bigger part of recruiting that people don’t talk about.
That part is resources and spending. The SEC is an arms race, and Auburn has fallen way behind in recent years. It wasn’t until last year when Auburn decided to break ground on a football-only facility — something that all of its rivals have had for years. Fortunately, that project is estimated to be finished in 2022.
In regards to recruiting spending, Auburn doesn’t rank in the top 10. Georgia, LSU, and Texas A&M all do. Auburn plays those teams every year.
Auburn can’t bring a knife to a gunfight; it’s simple. For Harsin to recruit the way he wants to, the athletic department has to give him what he needs.
Recruiting hasn’t come easy for Auburn in the first few months of the Harsin era, but that can be expected. To be quite frank, people in the south don’t know much about Harsin. Sure, they know that he had success at Boise State, but this is a different animal.
Auburn is a school that can sell itself if it is winning. For Harsin, winning and doing it quickly will be beneficial in getting the ball rolling on the recruiting trail.
Developing players, especially on the offensive side of the ball, might have been the biggest reason for Malzahn’s demise. Multiple highly-recruited players have come in and vastly underperformed in Malzahn’s offense, especially behind center.
Winning at a high level is done with impact players. For example, think of Joe Burrow at LSU. LSU had tons of talent around him, but would it have won the national championship without him? Probably not.
One player doesn’t make a team, but one can complete it. It’s up to Harsin to develop the talent on the field to get players to reach their potential.
Development ties into recruiting. Sure, you want to go out and get all the elite players you can. More times than not, those elite recruits end up validating the hype.
Of course, that’s if they are developed properly. However, going out and signing the under-the-radar recruits can be just as important. Sometimes, those 3-star prospects have super high ceilings.
Regardless what approach Harsin takes on recruiting, none of it matters if he can’t coach up and develop his players at a high level.
Lastly, and most importantly, we have patience. Of all these factors, this one may be the biggest of them all. Say what you want about Malzahn, but the fans and athletic department sure did turn on him quickly.
As a result, there was movement behind the scenes and attempts by some to get Malzahn out for years. If Auburn wants Harsin to be the guy, this is something that absolutely cannot continue.
The fans and the university are getting tired of falling short, but they need to understand it’s a process. It will probably take a few years for Harsin to get things going at Auburn. That won’t happen if he’s not given the time.
What does Harsin need to do? Well, he needs to do just about everything he can.
He needs to win over the team, fan base, and athletic department. If he can do that, then they’ll be willing to give him a longer leash. So far, it seems like Harsin has done a fine job at that.
Most importantly, Harsin needs to win and quick. He’ll get a year in 2021 to get his culture and system in place. However, things will get awkward really quick if there isn’t improvement by 2023 and maybe even 2022.
Is that fair?
Not really, but that’s the situation that Harsin walked into.
A coaching change can bring renewed optimism and put life back into the program. For the most part, the Harsin hire has seemed to do that at Auburn. Still, things won’t be easy.
Life in the SEC West is hard, and Harsin will figure that out quickly. All he needs to do is win and show improvement. Of course, that’s easier said than done. If he can do that, then everything else will fall in place.