Brian Murphy: Mark Coyle’s preparation pays off in hiring process

bmurphy@idahostatesman.comDecember 14, 2013 

“I think Mark (Coyle, left) and I were both in agreement that there would be an edge to somebody that really understood the program,” Boise State President Bob Kustra, right, said of the football coach hiring process.

KYLE GREEN — kgreen@idahostatesman.com

Mark Coyle compiled his first list of possible replacements for Boise State football coach Chris Petersen on a flight from Boise to Chicago.

On Dec. 1, 2011.

The day he was introduced as Boise State’s new athletic director.

For more than two years, Coyle added to — and adjusted — the list, preparing for a day that no one in Bronco Nation, including President Bob Kustra, wanted to think about.

Faced with finally losing Petersen last week, Coyle pulled an Excel spreadsheet out of a secret drawer at his home. He began looking at the 20 names. By noon on Dec. 6, the same day Petersen was named head coach at Washington, Coyle had culled the list to six people.

“Then by Saturday (Dec. 7), he was in full mode of contacting people and making calls,” Kustra said.

The Broncos interviewed all six to replace Petersen, the most successful coach in school history and the person most responsible for the program’s national prominence.

Arkansas State coach Bryan Harsin, Washington defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost, Boise State offensive line coach Chris Strausser and Boise State linebackers coach Bob Gregory met with Coyle, Senior Associate Athletic Director Curt Apsey and Executive Director for NCAA Compliance John Cunningham.

“I made the decision who would go on to the next level,” Coyle said, meaning a meeting with Kustra.

Kustra said he met with “four or five” of the candidates.

The interviews started Saturday night. Kustra met with a candidate at 9 p.m. Interviews continued Sunday and Monday. Harsin flew to Boise on Sunday evening.

•••

Coyle’s list of criteria for the next Boise State coach was varied.

He wanted someone honest.

He wanted an innovative leader. A hard worker. “Sometimes you just have to roll up your sleeves and work hard,’’ he said.

Someone committed to student-athletes. “Our student-athletes are very important to me.”

An incredible recruiter. “That’s one thing (Kentucky basketball) coach (John) Calipari taught me: You’ve got to get the kids.”

Someone committed to compliance. “I wanted the person to know, whoever we brought in, that’s a focus of ours, the compliance side of it.”

And someone with a sense of urgency. After eight seasons and 92 victories under Petersen, Coyle felt the Broncos needed energy.

“This program needs some of that right now. ... The expectations are sky high. I need someone who has a sense of urgency, who is going to embrace that.”

•••

Coyle had never met Harsin, a Boise native and former Boise State quarterback, assistant coach and offensive coordinator. Harsin left the program after the 2010 season to become Texas’ co-offensive coordinator. He spent 2013 as the head coach at Arkansas State, where he led the Red Wolves to a 7-5 record and a share of the Sun Belt title.

During their first conversation, Coyle and Harsin got one thing out the way quickly: Neither wanted the coach’s $1.75 million buyout at Arkansas State to be a problem. That could be worked out later — if Harsin was the best person for the job.

Coyle picked up Harsin after midnight and the two chatted. They met again at 6:30 Monday morning at Coyle’s home. It was during that meeting that the 37-year-old Harsin talked about having a “fourth-and-1” mentality. Coyle’s ears immediately perked up.

“That caught my attention,” Coyle said.

Still, administrators played it cool. Harsin was hoping his meetings in Boise would end with a handshake — and a job offer. Coyle was intent on playing out the process. That meant evaluating each candidate.

“I kept reminding myself that, ‘Hey, Mark. You have a process in place and stick to that process.’ I didn’t want to start looking at finances for one guy against another guy. I just wanted to make sure we found the right person,” Coyle said.

The Broncos met with additional candidates later Monday after Harsin — worried that he had blown the interview and a chance at his dream job — left for Jonesboro, Ark.

As part of his evaluation of Harsin, Coyle called Texas coach Mack Brown, Harsin’s boss for two years, and former Boise State players, including Kellen Moore. Coyle, who was an associate athletic director at Kentucky, also called his contacts in the SEC to find out what they thought about the coach at Arkansas State.

“Mack Brown had wonderful things to say about him,” Coyle said. “Everyone talked about him as this phenomenal offensive mind.”

•••

Kustra recalled Harsin with fondness from his play-calling heroics at the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, but also from a much-less heralded moment. After Harsin took the Texas job, he called Kustra in the early morning, letting the president know he wasn’t leaving because he didn’t love Boise State but because he wanted to better prepare himself to be a head coach at Boise State.

“I filed that away,” Kustra said.

When Harsin met with Kustra this week, they immediately recalled that conversation.

“I had a plan and I’m here,” Harsin told Kustra.

Though Coyle repeatedly said, “Harsin is not the head football coach because he’s from Boise, Idaho,” it is clear that his Boise State ties aided in the selection.

Of the six candidates, only one — Frost — was not a former Boise State coach.

“That would have been a more difficult challenge,” Kustra said of hiring someone without Boise State ties. “I think Mark and I were both in agreement that there would be an edge to somebody that really understood the program. I was reading the blogs and listening to what ex-players were saying. … One of the things they kept saying is we sure hope it’s somebody who understands our system and what we stand for. This is a very different program. It’s not a program that grew up the way others did. I think getting someone who was a part of it and helped build it is just an added plus.”

•••

Boise State wrapped up its interviews by the end of Monday. Koetter, the only coach beside Harsin with head-coaching experience, was one of the last candidates to talk with Kustra.

Now it was decision time.

On Tuesday morning, Coyle met with Apsey and Cunningham to get their input. During the afternoon, he met with Kustra and provided a detailed assessment of the candidacies of all six interviewees and what they stood for.

“We could tell that Bryan’s enthusiasm and energy about the job and his storied career here was enough to have him be the lead candidate,” Kustra said.

Kustra said the choice was Coyle’s.

“This is an athletic decision and not a presidential decision. He wants to make sure, like any athletic director, that the decision is in concert with the values and traditions of the university,” Kustra said.

Said Coyle: “Selfishly, I wanted the best fit. A fan base can tell you who to hire and obviously we’ve got a great fan base with Bronco Nation. But I’m the one who’s going to live with that person day in and day out.”

Coyle called Harsin shortly after the meeting.

“I want to make you the next head football coach at Boise State,” Coyle told him.

“His reaction was awesome.”

It was the only offer Coyle made.

And with that, Coyle had finished the biggest coaching search of his short Boise State tenure, a hire that could define his career in Boise no matter how long he stays.

The Excel spreadsheet can go back into the secret drawer at the Coyle home.

Where he hopes it can stay for a very long time.

Brian Murphy: 377-6444,Twitter: @MurphsTurph

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