Blue Magic excerpt: In first year, Harsin proved experience isn't everything

The Broncos’ offense remained potent under coordinator Bryan Harsin in 2006. Boise State ranked second in the nation in scoring, averaging 39.7 points.

sports@idahostatesman.comDecember 11, 2013 

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 5 of "Blue Magic: Boise State's inspiring journey to a Fiesta Bowl win." The book was written in 2007 by Chadd Cripe and Brian Murphy. You can purchase a copy of the book (autographed by Chris Petersen) here.

In assembling his first staff, Chris Petersen eschewed conventional wisdom. Before the first-time head coach nabbed a 29-year-old first-time defensive coordinator — Justin Wilcox was one of just three Division I-A defensive coordinators younger than 30 in 2006 — he hired a first-time offensive coordinator, too. Bryan Harsin was one of just two Division I-A offensive coordinators younger than 30 in 2006.

“There are no guarantees in anything. But these are as good of odds as we could play,” Petersen said at the time.

More than 100 coaches applied for a spot on Petersen’s coaching staff. He needed none of them to find his offensive coordinator.

Petersen simply walked down the hall.

• • •

Born and raised in Boise, Harsin spent much of his childhood at racetracks with his father, Dale, an accomplished drag racer. He loved the experience.

“Just being out there with my dad, that was the best time growing up,” Harsin said.

Dale Harsin began drag racing in 1971 and introduced his son to motor sports at a young age. When Bryan was 3, he had a motorcycle with training wheels. He soon graduated to go-karts. By 7, his summers were spent accompanying his father to races across the West.

The road trips cemented the bond between father and son.

“He was my son, but he was one of my best friends,” Dale said.

Dale allowed Bryan to get his license to drive the dragster as a high school graduation present. As he did with football, Harsin quickly devised ways to get more out of the car, to generate more speed.

“I watch him sit down and figure things out on the football field that most people can’t even think about,” Dale said. “Driving a car, he’d ask questions. I’d tell him, ‘If you do this and this, this car goes this way.’ He’d go, ‘But what if we do this?’ Try it and see. He’d get some ideas until he went down the track faster than I did. He had it figured out exactly.”

Bryan Harsin eventually reached 229 mph in his father’s dragster — faster than his old man.

Harsin, who has not been in the race car for several years because of his young family and burgeoning coaching career, misses those days.

“Someday, I’m going to get back into racing and do it. There’s no doubt in my mind,” he said.

• • •

Harsin’s racing summers ended when football practice began. He found his athletic success on the football field. In 1993, he succeeded future NFL standout Jake Plummer as the starting quarterback at Capital High — after beginning his high school career as a fullback and outside linebacker.

At a football camp during the summer before his junior year, Harsin began working with the quarterbacks when his running backs coach didn’t show up.

He impressed and was moved to quarterback.

But he entered camp as the third-stringer. Instead of being discouraged, he went to work in typical Harsin fashion. By the season opener, Harsin was the starter under center.

The Boisean walked on without a scholarship at Boise State. After redshirting the 1995 season, Harsin entered spring practice as one of just two quarterbacks in camp.

Starter Tony Hilde, who would return for the 1996 season, did not participate in spring ball. Harsin again took advantage of the situation, showing well enough during spring drills that coach Pokey Allen decided to put him on scholarship.

“Me and Dave Stachelski were sitting in the hallway, and Pokey Allen walked out. He was kind of talking to us — he was kind of a grumpy dude — and was saying, ‘Oh, you guys are doing fine.’ Then he’s like, ‘I’m going to give you a scholarship.’ And then he looks at Dave and goes, ‘You’ve already got a scholarship.’ And then he just walked off,” Harsin recalled.

Stachelski, a tight end, eventually became a fifth-round NFL Draft pick of the New England Patriots and later played five games for the New Orleans Saints.

Upon hearing Allen’s promise, Harsin immediately rushed to the nearest pay phone and called his father. But in the fall, Allen stepped down to undergo treatment for his cancer. Interim coach Tom Mason stepped in, and Harsin didn’t let him forget Allen’s promise.

“Mason had so many things on his plate, and I was in there every day going, ‘Hey, Mase, he told me I was going to be on scholarship.’ He was like, ‘I know. I’m going to get to you,’ ” Harsin said.

It was a conversation the two had often.

“I was on scholarship for being annoying more than anything. Just to shut me up,” Harsin said.

Harsin did not start a game during his career, getting stuck behind Hilde and then standout Bart Hendricks — No. 1 and No. 2 on the Broncos’ all-time total offense list. Hendricks earned Big West Conference Offensive MVP honors in 1999 and 2000.

“He was one of our best quarterbacks ever. He took his opportunity and ran with it,” Harsin said. “I felt like I got treated well. I at least knew why. I knew why I wasn’t playing. As a player, you appreciate that honesty. You want to know why and what you need to work on and be able to handle the situation.”

Stuck behind two standout quarterbacks, Harsin understood the circumstances and worked to get better, another recurring theme. During a 38-7 loss to UCLA at the Bruins’ famed Rose Bowl stadium in 1999, Harsin led the Broncos to their only score in mop-up duty. He capped a seven-play, 99-yard touchdown drive with a 17-yard pass to tight end Shaelan McDonough with 2 minutes remaining in the game. Harsin started the drive with a 47-yard pass to Lou Fanucchi.

“That was a fun moment for us and for him,” then-center Scott Huff said.

Added Harsin: “That was important to me.”

His time on the bench allowed him to gather a coaching knowledge of the game. After graduating from Boise State with a degree in business management, Harsin got into the coaching game at Eastern Oregon University. In 2001, he joined his alma mater as the offensive graduate assistant.

“He was way smart,” Huff said. “You knew that guy knew what he was doing when he stepped on the field.”

A year later, he applied for a job as the Broncos’ tight ends coach. He was passed over for Stefan de Vries.

The rejection stung.

“I went down to the weight room to release some frustration and (strength and conditioning coach) Jeff Pitman was there. And I was pissed. I had a mean mug in the mirror the whole time,” Harsin said.

Pitman, sensing Harsin’s frustration, pulled him aside.

“You can’t be walking around here all pissed off. You can’t let them see that,” Pitman told Harsin. “You’ve got to work on what they think you need to work on.”

Harsin took the advice to heart. He still has great respect for Pitman for giving it to him. Harsin realized he had weaknesses that he hadn’t noticed before. A former quarterback, Harsin knew the passing game.

So he got out of his comfort zone and went to work on gaining a complete grasp of the running game.

“You always think you know more than you do,” Harsin said.

He would be ready the next time an opening presented itself, and it happened sooner than anyone expected.

After Notre Dame coach George O’Leary was forced to resign because of a resume gaffe in December 2001, schools began reviewing the accuracy of their coaches’ resumes.

Boise State was no different.

Though de Vries listed a master’s degree in athletic administration from Oregon on his resume, the coach told the Idaho Statesman in an interview that he was still finishing up the degree. De Vries was fired in July 2002, just weeks before Boise State opened camp.

Harsin got his chance, in part because he hadn’t pouted.

“How Hars handled not getting the job the first time, it really showed his fortitude and professionalism and maturity,” Petersen said.

Said Harsin’s wife, Kes: “He never stopped working hard.”

During his four-year run as the Broncos’ tight ends coach, Harsin became a valuable assistant to Petersen, the Broncos’ offensive coordinator. The offense racked up impressive numbers as one of the top-scoring teams in the nation over that span. When Petersen got the top job, he immediately knew that he wanted the 29-year-old Harsin to be his offensive coordinator.

“I kept coming back to, ‘That’s the guy,’ ” Petersen said.

Harsin was ready for the job, Petersen knew that.

Late in the 2005 regular-season finale against Louisiana Tech, Petersen let Harsin call plays. Though the game had long been decided, Harsin attacked it with all his energy.

“For me, that was exciting. I was fired up. I thought it was the beginning of the game. That was a big-time game for me,” Harsin said. “It made my whole season.”

Much of Harsin’s coaching career has been spent working for Petersen, and the two approach the game in a similar manner. They’ve had a natural connection.

“The way he watches film, the way he talks about offensive football, he’s kind of like a mini-Coach Pete,” center Jadon Dailey said.

Like Petersen, Harsin is soft-spoken and tries to avoid the spotlight. He’d rather watch film or coach his quarterbacks than speak with the media. Like Petersen, he’s an intense competitor.

“I’ve taken a lot of how I coach from him. Our philosophies are very similar,” Harsin said.

So, too, is their dedication to the craft. Kes often wakes up at night to find her husband jotting plays in his office. She finds scraps of paper with Xs and Os all over the house.

“All I think about all the time is football, this play and that play,” Harsin once told Petersen.

“To me, that sealed the deal,” Petersen said. “It’s a lot how I am. Whether it’s football season or even out of football season, I’m always thinking about the next thing.”

Dailey said Harsin picked up his new job quickly. In spring practice, he impressed players wary of losing Petersen as offensive coordinator. Petersen decided years before taking the head coaching job that he did not want both roles.

“(Harsin) wants to watch a ton of film so he can get every single thing down. He’s always willing to try new things and learn. He’s got a champion’s heart and loves football. And he’s willing to sacrifice so many hours a day to be prepared for one opponent,” Dailey said.

The offense hardly missed a beat during the 2006 season. Boise State finished second in the nation in scoring, averaging 39.7 points despite new rules designed to shorten the game and an offense built around a time-consuming running attack.

In the Fiesta Bowl, Harsin showed his guts and the depth of the Broncos’ playbook. Rather than play it safe in overtime, he turned to the recesses of the playbook. Harsin called not only Vinny Perretta’s halfback pass on fourth-and-2 in overtime and the Statue of Liberty play for the game-winning two-point conversion, but he tried a Perretta pass back to quarterback Jared Zabransky earlier in the overtime that was snuffed out by Oklahoma.

“Those were some very gutsy calls,” offensive line coach Sean Kugler said.

And impressive.

When the season ended, new Alabama coach Nick Saban called Harsin and asked him to interview for the Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator position. Alabama has won seven consensus national championships in the past 46 years. Miami called, too, Kes said.

That school has won five national championships since 1983.

Harsin — who wants to be a head coach someday — declined the opportunities, citing his happiness with Boise and the Broncos’ program.

That’s just one more similarity to Petersen, who declined numerous opportunities to leave Boise State for big-name programs during his stint as offensive coordinator.

“It was a huge compliment,” Kes said. “We could totally go and take this money. It wasn’t about that. We knew in our hearts it wasn’t the right time.”

• • •

Kes Hulbert met Bryan when she was a 15-year-old ninth-grader. Bryan, one year younger, made an impression with his humor.

“The life of the party,” Kes said.

The two dated through high school and college, but broke up for several months before Harsin’s senior year at Boise State. Kes, needing a change, sold all of her belongings and drove to Arizona to live with her sister.

A week after she moved, Harsin called and asked if he could visit.

When he showed up, he took her to the Hard Rock Cafe for dinner and proposed.

“He realized if I want to have her, I’ve got to go get her and get my life rolling,” Kes said.

It’s rolling now. The couple has three young children — daughters, Devyn and Dayn, and son, Davis. The children are often around the Boise State facilities, a product of the family-friendly environment the Broncos have cultivated.

Harsin now spends his summers bonding with his children, through boating and camping trips.

“In this business, guys usually move around quite a bit and the chance to be around your family, the chance to have your parents there, for them to be around the grandkids, that’s something we think is very important in our careers,” Harsin said. “We know how lucky we are to have this opportunity with our family. We know how important that is.”

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