BOISE, Idaho — It was early January and Bryan Harsin had just returned home from two days of interviewing with Mack Brown and the Texas Longhorns when his phone rang.
Harsin begins installing the Boise State offense at Texas on Thursday, as the Longhorns open spring practice.
The truth is, it hadn’t stopped ringing. Friends. Family. Media. Everybody was interested in talking. Harsin, a humble and quiet guy in public, was not.
But this time was different.
His father, Dale, could tell. Harsin gave it away with a quizzical look as he checked the caller ID. He flashed the phone to his father before answering.
“It was (LSU coach) Les Miles calling,” Dale recalled.
Miles, a friend who often spoke with Harsin, was the latest in a long line of head coaches wanting to work with the Boise State offensive coordinator, who had returned to Boise from Austin with a one-year, $625,000 offer from the Longhorns. Harsin hadn’t signed a contract, yet, but there definitely was an understanding between himself and Brown.
Miles still wanted to make a pitch, a more lucrative offer. More years. More money. More stability.
“He told Bryan that he shouldn’t accept anything before he came down to Baton Rouge,” Harsin’s wife, Kes Harsin, said. “It was quite an offer. They really wanted him.”
With a multi-year guaranteed contract, the Harsin’s could buy a house instead of renting. They could promise their kids at least a few years of stability. Harsin could showcase his talents in the SEC, the supposed promise land of college football, with more media coverage, rabid fans and challenges than perhaps any other conference
Harsin begins to install the Boise State offense at Texas when the Longhorns take to the field today for spring practice.
It gave Harsin and his family a lot to think about.
Except it didn’t.
Harsin, who married the girl he began dating in junior high, is about loyalty. Harsin, who has stuck by and helped guide some of his closest friends through difficult times, is about doing the right thing. In this case, there was a right thing to do.
“LSU is a great school, and I really was flattered that Coach Miles, who’s an amazing coach, was interested in me,” Harsin said. “In any other situation I would have talked about the offer with my family. I told him I’d already accepted a job at Texas, and I wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t honor that.”
In the end, Harsin chose Texas as much as Texas chose Harsin.
That was always going to be the case.
The day after former Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis resigned, Harsin phoned Brown to tell the head coach he was interested in the opening.
For those close to Harsin, that was a huge signal. This is the same coach that, three years prior, turned down an offer from Alabama without ever flying to the campus. He also decided against interviewing for the Pittsburgh head coaching job despite having a flight scheduled the day he left Austin.
“There’s always been something about Texas,” Harsin said. “I’d never been down here, but it seemed like a special place. You always hear about Texas and Coach Mack Brown doing amazing things, and you wonder how they’re doing what they’re doing. I’d always said that Texas was a place I’d be interested in.”
It wasn’t about the money. It was about making the right choice for his family.
Now it’s time for Harsin to get to work. The challenge is immense.
The lifelong Boise resident left the comfortable cocoon of Boise State and jumped to the other side of the country into a high-risk, high-reward situation. He will face more pressure and scrutiny than any of the new coaches.
He’s not only installing a new offense and calling the plays, but he’s also replacing Davis, a coach who groomed the top two quarterbacks in school history (Vince Young and Colt McCoy) and who produced the top nine scoring seasons in school history during his 13-year tenure.
The heat is on Harsin.
Yet, there are no concerns. He’s not worried about it because he “doesn’t think about that stuff.”
Those closest to him aren’t worried because they know who Harsin is, how much he’s grown and how hard he’s worked to get to his current position.
They weren’t always expecting him to conquer the world.
Sitting in a football conference room at Moncrief-Newhaus Athletic Center,
Harsin rubs the scar on his nose and smiles.
“I guess you could say I wasn’t the smartest kid,” he said, laughing.
Harsin’s scar came from a dog bite when he was 3-years old. His dog, O.J., did the biting. Not that Harsin blames O.J. Harsin bit first.
“I think he was in my way or we were playing, and I kind of bit him on the leg,” Harsin said. “He kind of turned his head and I look up and his teeth caught my nose and ripped a chunk out. It also took my tear duct out. You’d think I would have learned, but the same thing happened again. So I actually have two scars from dog bites.”
Dale Harsin believes his son bit the dog because he was “always on the go and didn’t like to sit still.” Whether it was riding a big wheel, a bike or eventually funny cars that reach 230 miles per hour, as a kid, Harsin was always on the move.
He grew up watching The Dukes of Hazzard and his favorite weekend activity was traveling with his father, who turned a Chevy Vega into a funny car and raced it all over the Northwest.
Too young to drive, Harsin often helped his father with the various checkpoints needed to ensure the driver’s safety during races.
“I was always amazed at how detailed he was,” said Dale, who works for Owyhee Construction in Boise. “He wouldn’t miss anything. At first he was in charge of checking the parachutes. Eventually he had more and more responsibility. If the slightest thing was off in the car, he would know.”
This attention to detail would pay off later as both a player and a coach on the football field. When Harsin was old enough to drive, he got a Camaro that he raced at the high school drags. Racing was another aspect that aided him down the road
“When you’re in a race, there’s so much going on and everything happens so fast,” Harsin said. “The adrenaline is rushing and you’ve got to make decisions in split seconds. Not only that, but your life is on the line. Once you’ve been in that situation, being on the football field in front of fans doesn’t seem as daunting.”
SPREAD IT OUT
Harsin, who spent four years at Boise State as a backup quarterback, wasn’t always a signal caller. In fact, he was a running back until his junior year of high school, when Capital High Schoool coach Steve Vogel, needed somebody to replace star quarterback Jake Plummer.
“Nobody really wanted to try and replace Jake,” Vogel said. “But ‘Harse’ knew he wasn’t the best running back on the team and he wanted to play. So he volunteered. That’s the kind of attitude he has. He’s going to do what he has to do to get what he wants.”
It turned out to be a smart move for Harsin, who earned the starting job.
But it was more than just being a quarterback. Vogel’s offense was all about spreading out the defense and using multiple receivers. They had the hook-n-ladder play. They had a play where the quarterback threw a backward skip pass to a receiver, who pretended the ball was incomplete and the play was over before throwing a pass to another receiver.
“We were all about passing the ball and trick plays,” Vogel said. “Nobody was doing the kind of stuff we were doing in our area. I still see some of the offense we used to run in the Boise offense.”
“There’s some of it,” Harsin said. “But you’re never going to see a skip pass. That was a one-time thing.”
More important than on-the-field success, was the relationship Vogel and Harsin had off the field. Vogel was a mentor and a friend. The two were so close that Vogel would often play pranks on Harsin with the help of Harsin’s closest friend, Jim Breckke, who played tight end for Boise State and roomed with Harsin in college.
“There was one time when three of us were going up to a football camp, and Vogel got us these new gold practice uniforms to wear,” Brekke said. “He gave them to me, but handed me an extra practice uniform that was old, raggedy and torn up. He told me to give that one to Harsin first.”
Brekke handed out the new uniforms and then gave Harsin the old one.
“Harse had a temper back then, which is why everybody liked messing with him,” Brekke said. “Harse flipped out. I mean he was really annoyed. Finally he actually called Vogel up and left him a long message about how he didn’t appreciate having to wear an old uniform and that he was the quarterback and should represent the team.”
That was when Brekke pulled out the new jersey and showed it to Harsin. An
apologetic phone call followed.
The pranks and jokes continued for years, which is why it meant a lot to Vogel when Harsin came to him and said he was interested in being a football coach.
“I’d like to think I had something to do with that,” Vogel said. “Maybe I did. Maybe I didn’t. But I do know that after Boise State beat Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, I got a text that said, ‘Thanks for being such a good mentor.’ I still have that text.”
THE BOISE STATE YEARS
Walk into Dale Harsin’s house and there’s an entire room dedicated to Boise State with pictures, footballs, jerseys and signed paraphernalia everywhere.
“We’re a Boise State family,” Dale said. “We always have been.”
Harsin has, too. Out of high school, he didn’t receive a scholarship offer from the Broncos, but he chose Boise State over a bunch of offers from NAIA schools. The coach told him if he worked hard he’d earn a scholarship.
“I think Bryan not earning a scholarship to Boise State was the best thing that ever happened to him,” Dale said. “That’s when he learned how to work. He busted his butt harder than he ever had to get that scholarship. He put in extra time working out, extra time in the film room and kept his grades up. I was proud of him for that, but I think that’s when he learned what real work was.”
Harsin never became a starter for the Broncos, but he built relationships and showed a deeper understanding of the sport.
In fact, he would study so much film he would run into problems when he gave his opinion.
“One time, we were in Dirk Koetter’s office talking about the game plan for that weekend’s game,” Brekke said. “Koetter (then Boise’s head coach and currently the Jacksonville Jaquars offensive coordinator), who was the offensive coordinator and a real genius, was going over a play we were going to run if the team came out in a certain defense.”
Harsin disagreed. He pointed out that the opponent would see what Boise State was doing and change.
“Harse was just a backup quarterback at the time, but he studied so much film that he knew what he was talking about,” Brekke said. “Koetter got so mad that he kicked Harse out of his office. We ended up switching to the way Harse thought the play should be run.”
Those were the things that were remembered when Harsin wanted to come back to coach at Boise State. After leaving for a year to coach receivers and running backs in Eastern Oregon’s triple-option offense, Harsin returned to Boise as a graduate assistant.
“He needed a little push,” Kes said.”He didn’t want to call anybody and ask for a favor. But I knew we needed to get out of Oregon. So I drove him back to Boise State and took him right to those football offices.”
Harsin went from graduate assistant to coaching tight ends under head coach Dan Hawkins. When Hawkins left for Colorado and Chris Petersen was promoted from offensive coordinator to Broncos head coach, Harsin got the opportunity he was looking for.
“I knew I wanted Bryan as my offensive coordinator,” Petersen said. “We worked so well together when I was offensive coordinator and he was working with the receivers.
“I’ve always been an idea guy. I figured with him as the offensive coordinator my role would be to stand back and observe and offer thoughts here and there. It was kind of what he did for me when I was OC (offensive coordinator). He would do a good job of getting back, digesting everything that I put together and figuring out how to use it the best way. We kind of switched roles when I became head coach.”
Every year Harsin became more and more confident and took on more responsibilities at Boise State. He ran the summer camps. He truly became Petersen’s right-hand man.
“He’s a matter-of-fact guy and he’s a positive guy,” Petersen said. “I knew I wanted to hire him right away and that he was going to succeed. He’s got a really good demeanor for a coordinator. He’s very even-keeled. He not only looks for the right things to do but he has a firm understanding of why they’re the right things to do.”
LEAVING BOISE FOR AUSTIN
Every year there were offers from other schools. Harsin didn’t take them.
Despite always wanting to be a head coach, he was content growing at Boise State. Harsin and Petersen would talk about the future. Harsin would tell Petersen about the offers, and Petersen would offer Harsin advice.
Eventually, Harsin began to realize that Petersen wasn’t interested in leaving Boise State.
“They talked,” Kes said. “Chris and Bryan were really close. And I know Bryan always told Chris he wanted to be a head coach. Bryan didn’t think Chris was going to leave Boise State anytime soon. Why would he? So we always knew we would leave if the right opportunity arrived.”
The right opportunity came when Brown called.
“I knew,” Kes said. “I knew before Bryan did that we’d be moving.”
“I told Bryan this was an opportunity that is just too good to pass up,” Petersen said. “You don’t get too many of these. Bryan’s a really smart guy. He’s very much into getting better. We both knew this was an opportunity for him to continue that growth.”
Harsin understands he faces a big challenge when it comes to installing a new offense at Texas. He feels one of the keys is not to push it.
“One advantage I think I have is with over 10 years of running this system, I’ve been through all the headaches and the issues,” Harsin said. “There are so many things that we’ve covered and changed to keep the offense growing. I’ve done it before so I feel like I know the pitfalls. The thing is you’ve got to be smart about how you put it in.”
Harsin has been working closely with co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite on how the two should go about installing the offense.
“The thing I appreciate about Bryan is he’s disciplined, focused and enthusiastic,” Applewhite said. “He loves his job, and I love working with people who love their job. We’ve spent a lot of time in a room trying to put together and trying to learn the system that Bryan has installed at Boise. I appreciate the flexibility that it has.”
Harsin says the team will work on installing the base plays this spring.
“We want to have a certain amount in when we finish spring,” Harsin said. “We need to get the basics down and the base plays. Those are the plays we ran year after year at Boise. Then we’ll continue to put more in. As the season goes on, our offense will evolve. It will evolve in terms of how we call plays and how we attack different opponents.”
It will be similar to how Harsin has evolved.
He’s gone from bleeding Boise blue to burnt orange.
It didn’t take long for the Harsin’s to get used to being in Texas.
“It already feels like home,” Harsin said. “Everybody has been so nice to me and my family. We’re really amazed at how genuine the people are down here. I’ll always love Boise and it will always be home, but, at the same time, being here just feels right.”
It wasn’t only Texas choosing Harsin.
Harsin chose Texas, too.