Brian Murphy: Harsin era has been smooth — so far

bmurphy@idahostatesman.comMarch 8, 2014 

— In three months — and without conducting a practice or winning a game, conference title or major bowl game — Bryan Harsin has managed to do what I assumed would take years and multiple coaches: Make Boise State fans OK, even eager, to enter the post-Chris Petersen era.

Petersen went 92-12 in eight seasons as the Broncos’ head coach, winning two Fiesta Bowls and earning the admiration of all of Bronco Nation.

If you’d told me a year ago that Petersen’s departure (for something of a regional rival, no less) would be seen as no big deal by locals just months after it happened, I would have laughed.

And laughed. And laughed.

Everyone would have.

Petersen’s accomplishments, along with the community’s unquestioned respect for him, promised to put the Broncos’ next coach in an untenable position. Nick Saban, it seemed, would have faced obstacles if he followed Coach Pete.

But, as the Broncos and Harsin begin spring practice Monday morning, there are no obvious signs of discord in Bronco Nation and no real longing for Petersen, who is installing his management style at Washington.

Instead, there is a sense of excitement and, yes, optimism about the direction of the program. Never did I think the coach replacing Petersen would have it so easy.

Harsin’s pedigree — Boise native, former Boise State player and Boise State assistant coach and then offensive coordinator under Petersen — certainly eased the transition. Harsin is willing to use words like dream job about this place. He confessed Thursday that he’d prefer to never move from the home his family is building.

But it wasn’t all cooked into his biography.

Several Harsin decisions, including hiring a staff with deep Boise State ties and loyalty, have helped buoy fan spirits. His “embrace the past, attack the future” message resonated.

His intention to install an offense than includes parts of the “old Boise State offense” brought cheers. As has his style — younger and more open than Petersen. The behind-the-scenes videos and the recruiting tweets have attracted fans, particularly in contrast to Petersen’s increasingly closed-off program. In his pre-spring press conference, Harsin set 20,000 fans as the goal for the spring game, another bit of outreach.

The exodus of Boise State commitments to Washington and Petersen no doubt turned some fans off on the old regime and Petersen’s own comments about some of the challenges he faced in Boise and the creeping burnout he was feeling likewise eased the transition.

Having already conquered what I assumed would be the toughest part of the job for the first post-Petersen coach, Harsin prepares for the next challenge.

He may not have to win over fans, but he does have to win games. And he must do so with a roster that went 8-5 last season with a more experienced and heralded coaching staff.

These Broncos lack depth at quarterback, running back and tight end. The defense, at times, lacked toughness and big-time playmakers — and that was with defensive end Demarcus Lawrence in uniform. The coaching staff combed the junior college ranks for reinforcements along the defensive line and needs immediate impact from several of them.

Harsin’s newly approved contract calls for an automatic one-year extension if the Broncos win nine games in a season. In the new-look Mountain West, nine wins may not translate into conference titles. In college football’s new bowl hierarchy, nine wins certainly won’t translate into appearances in one of the biggest bowl games.

Those are Harsin’s new goals.

With the general backing of Bronco Nation, he’s conquered the first part of replacing a legend. The next step requires more than biography, openness or cool slogans — and it will definitely take more than three months.

Brian Murphy: 377-6444; Twitter: @murphsturph

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