Boise State football coach Bryan Harsin used to pester Tom Mason. Twenty years later, they’ve developed plenty of admiration for each other.
In the summer of 1996, Harsin was a redshirt freshman walk-on quarterback for the Broncos, and Mason was the interim head coach, leading the team as Pokey Allen was battling cancer.
Allen told Harsin that spring he was going to get a scholarship, but it never materialized before he took a leave of absence.
“I bugged (Mason) to the point where he was like, ‘Fine, we’ve got one — take it,’ ” Harsin said.
It was Mason’s fourth and final season as defensive coordinator at Boise State, with the staff departing after a 2-10 season. On Saturday, he returns as Hawaii’s defensive coordinator to a place that holds a special meaning.
“Of all my stops, Boise will always be one of the best,” Mason said. “The people are unbelievable, and you think about the kids you’ve coached, ones like Bryan who worked so hard, and you knew they’d end up being great people.
“To see him and (defensive coordinator) Marcel Yates reach an even higher pinnacle that you ever did, in your profession, it makes you so proud, and you just hope maybe you had some small influence.”
He no doubt made an impression on Harsin, after Mason went 1-9 before his long-time friend Allen returned for the final two games, then succumbing to cancer in late December. Last September, Mason took over as SMU’s interim coach after June Jones resigned, also going 1-9.
“After I got into coaching, and I thought back to his situation, I appreciated what they went through and what he had to go through as an interim coach. ... He’s done it twice now,” Harsin said. “I’ve got tremendous respect for him, even more so looking back on what he had to go through on that staff.”
Saturday also will be a homecoming of sorts for Hawaii offensive coordinator Don Bailey, who was the Broncos’ receivers coach on the same staff from 1993 to 1996. Two of his children were born in Boise during his tenure.
“I loved it there. It’ll be really nice to go back,” said Bailey, who was at Idaho State the previous four seasons. “But we’re there to beat Boise State this time. I know they’re not going to take it easy on us, just as we wouldn’t on them.”
That’s the exact mentality that crosses Yates’ mind when he thinks of Bailey. Yates was a freshman on the Broncos’ 1996 team, and he coached in 2001 and 2002 at Montana State with Bailey, albeit on the defensive side of the ball.
“Every day in the offseason, we played noon ball and me and him were always on the same team,” Yates said. “He was competitive, always wanted to win, and I always wanted to win, so it was a good match.”
Since their Boise State tenures, Mason and Bailey have made a combined 15 stops in the football coaching world, each climbing their way back up following the 1996 season. Mason first went to Northern Iowa, while Bailey moved on to Division II Shepherd College in West Virginia.
“It affected me, knocked my career back 10 years,” Mason said. “I was on track to be a head coach. Circumstances or not, you take that record with you — it set me way back, same thing at SMU. Career-wise, it’s suicide. But you’re in it for the players. Someone has to step up. It was the right thing to do. No regrets at all.”
Both Mason and Bailey point to a game that still resonates as their top Boise State memory, one that fans will no doubt appreciate — Nov. 19, 1994.
“Snapping the (12)-game losing streak against Idaho,” Mason said.
“Probably beating Idaho,” Bailey said.
Both in their first seasons on the Rainbow Warriors’ staff, they have seen positives on both sides of the ball. Starting with an upset Saturday, they hope to earn the team’s first bowl berth since 2010.
“They’re on the other sideline, so they’re the enemy. But I’ll look forward to shaking their hands after,” Bailey said.