Bryan Harsin’s back home as Boise State head coach

Former Bronco player and coach returns to lead team ‘with a sense of urgency’

ccripe@idahostatesman.comDecember 12, 2013 

Bryan Harsin will be a Boise State football coach unlike any of the 10 before him.

A Boise native — a first.

A Bronco — a first.

Those Boise State bloodlines, combined with an already-boundless passion for coaching football, could create one of the most driven coaches the school has seen.

“We will build this program every day with a sense of urgency,” Harsin promised in the news release distributed Wednesday to announce his hiring.

The 37-year-old former Boise State quarterback (1995-99), assistant coach (2001-05) and offensive coordinator (2006-10) returns home after two years as the co-offensive coordinator at Texas (2011-12) and one year as the head coach at Arkansas State.

Contract details have not been released.

Harsin, who will not coach Arkansas State in its bowl game, won’t be formally introduced until later this week. It is unknown what role Harsin could play in Boise State’s bowl game.

Judging by the enthusiasm in that press release — “We’re coming home,” he said — he will be all smiles when he returns to Boise, surrounded by wife, Kes, and their three children.

But former players say they’ve seen the other side of the Capital High graduate — the serious, motivated man whose entire career has been built on the idea that he might one day lead the Broncos program.

“He’s got a little bit of the Jon Gruden stare,” former Boise State wide receiver Tyler Shoemaker (2007-11) said, referencing the former NFL coach. “I’ve had some experience with that. It means business.”

Harsin replaces his mentor, Chris Petersen, who took the top job at Washington on Friday.

He extends a coaching chain that started with Dirk Koetter in 1998 and continued with Koetter assistant Dan Hawkins in 2001 and Hawkins assistant Petersen in 2006. Harsin played for Koetter — ironically, a contender for the job this time, too — and coached under Hawkins and Petersen.

“He has more Bronco history than most people,” Petersen said. “… (Being a head coach) was one of his goals for a long time. He was very set on it. It’s great — not only to be a head coach but to come back to your alma mater and where you grew up and all those things, that’s a really special situation.”

Harsin played football at Capital, where he became the unlikely starting quarterback as a junior. He replaced local legend Jake Plummer, who led the Eagles to the previous two state championship games, and got them there again in 1993.

“I was an assistant over at Boise High. I remember it was, ‘Thank goodness, Jake Plummer is gone,’ ” said Todd Simis, now the coach at Capital. “Bryan came in and had two good years. … He kind of kept the tradition rolling.”

Harsin walked on at Boise State in 1995 and never started a game in his five years on the roster. But he earned a scholarship and a business management degree while preparing himself for a coaching career.

He suggested plays to Koetter and, at least once, the coach implemented his idea. The play was undone by an overthrown pass but Harsin says it would have worked.

Harsin also quizzed Koetter on his decisions.

“I love players who do that,” Koetter said in 2006. “It shows that they’re into it.”

Harsin was the backup to star quarterback Bart Hendricks as a senior in 1999. Hendricks was one of the nation’s most prolific quarterbacks, winning the Big West offensive MVP award.

Still, Hendricks said, he couldn’t match Harsin’s mind for the game.

“He knew what he was doing, there’s no doubt about that — probably even more than I did,” Hendricks said. “I guess I can admit that now.”

Dale Harsin, the coach’s dad, remembers his son telling him he wanted to coach for the first time during his senior season.

Harsin played for four coaches at Boise State — Pokey Allen (1995-96), interim Tom Mason (1996), Houston Nutt (1997) and Koetter (1998-99).

“He took ideas from everybody and put them together,” Dale said.

Harsin spent one year at Eastern Oregon and joined the Boise State staff as a graduate assistant in 2001. His career hit a critical moment in December 2001, when he applied for a job as the Broncos’ tight ends coach.

He didn’t get it.

Harsin knew the intricacies of the pass game but not the run game.

“I went down to the weight room to release some frustration and (strength and conditioning coach) Jeff Pitman was there,” Harsin said in 2006. “And I was pissed. I had a mean mug in the mirror the whole time.”

Pitman — who has been Harsin’s strength coach at Arkansas State — pulled Harsin aside and delivered some advice that set him on the path toward the job he accepted Wednesday.

“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 spent extra time with offensive line coach Chris Strausser to improve his knowledge of the run game and was rewarded in July 2002 with the promotion. The original hire, Stefan de Vries, didn’t work out.

And Harsin wasn’t satisfied with just getting the job.

He spent the 2003 season working with Strausser on the run game.

“One of the things we pound to our players is how you handle adversity, and I know that was a lot of adversity for him,” Petersen said in 2006. “... We were kind of waiting and watching to see how he handled that whole thing, and he handled it like a champ.”

Harsin partnered with Petersen, then the offensive coordinator, on the passing attack in 2004-05 — developing a rapport with Petersen and a knowledge of the game that paid off when Hawkins left for Colorado at the end of the 2005 season.

Petersen hired Harsin — at 29 — to be his offensive coordinator.

“On offense, philosophywise, we’re very, very similar,” Petersen said Wednesday. “It’s one of the reasons it was a really good fit. It was a really good mesh. The things we really believed in in offensive football were the same. How we’re different as head coaches, I can’t answer that one. But footballwise, we’re very similar.”

Harsin ran the Broncos’ offense through the most successful five-year period in school history — from 2006 to 2010. The Broncos went 61-5 with four conference titles and two Fiesta Bowl championships while finishing fourth or better in the nation in points scored four times.

He also coached Kellen Moore, the quarterback who shredded the school record book and became a Heisman Trophy finalist.

“When you think of Hars, you think of preparation, details and organization — three things that are very tied into the Boise State culture,” Moore said. “Coach Hars is as organized of a person as you’ll meet. I think he’ll do a great job of coaching this team and being able to oversee the whole program.”

Harsin already was considered a potential successor to Petersen in 2010, but there was one hole in his resume. Other than that season at Eastern Oregon — small-college football — he had never left Boise.

So he exited in January 2011 to become the co-offensive coordinator at Texas. He parlayed two years there into the head job at Arkansas State, where he went 7-5 this season and won a share of the Sun Belt championship.

“When a guy grows up and just knows one way — and it’s a good way — but I think when you go see how some things are done, a different way, some good, some not as good, that’s a healthy, beneficial process,” Petersen said.

Now Harsin will get a chance to show his hometown what he learned during that three-year tour.

And add that to all he gathered from Petersen, Hawkins, Koetter, Nutt, Mason and Allen — a list that covers six of the previous 10 coaches in program history.

He’ll need all that knowledge — and perhaps a little luck — to succeed in replacing the winningest coach in college football.

“Every opportunity he’s had, it seems like he’s stepped up and done a great job,” Simis said. “I don’t see any reason why this would be any different.”

Harsin will be reunited with a large extended family when he returns. His parents, one of two sisters and many of his in-laws live here.

Plus, he and Kes will be able to raise their three children in their hometown.

“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 in 2007. “We know how lucky we are to have this opportunity with our family. We know how important that is.”

He did leave once.

But he did it with the idea that he’d be back.

“One of the hardest decisions we ever made was leaving Boise,” Harsin said in the press release. “We did that so I could become a better coach, so I could one day have the opportunity to return as head coach — that day has arrived.”

Chadd Cripe: 377-6398, Twitter: @IDS_BroncoBeat

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