Leaving the House of Boise: How and Why Bryan Harsin Is Auburn's Coach

Why is Bryan Harsin in the Deep South, coaching in the toughest conference in college football, in the toughest division, in a state with the most dominant college football program in a half-century?
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AUBURN, Ala. — It’s hard to leave Boise.

It’s one of the fastest growing cities in America for a reason. It’s a beautiful, serene place—the wilderness, the people, the city. It’s remote but also just enough urban, a bustling hub surrounded by the great outdoors.

Boise people describe Boise as having one of the best qualities of life of any place in the U.S. Some say it’s downright perfect. Lovely. Affordable. Fun and yet laid back.

The high school football is great there, too. Like magnets, prep prospects flock to the state university with the sparkling facilities and famous blue turf. Boise State has won 14 conference championships in 20 years, in part because of the many advantages it holds over its league foes.

If you’re the head football coach at Boise State having led the program to incredible heights while living in Boise after having played at Boise State and growing up near Boise, you’d seem to have it made.

And so, on this overcast Thursday in late February, why is Bryan Harsin sitting here, not anywhere near Boise or Boise State, but in the Deep South, having agreed to coach in the toughest conference in college football, in the toughest division, in a state with the most dominant college football program in a half-century?

Because Boise boys like their challenges. They want a chance to win it all, and we don’t mean a division or conference title or some bowl trophy, they want it all. And no matter the greatness of Boise, it doesn’t offer it all, at least not under the current postseason system in college football.

“Yeah,” says Harsin, his clenched fist pounding against his desk, “that pissed me off.”

The last straw came in 2019, when a 12-1 Boise State, winners at Florida State, their only loss by three on the road at BYU with a backup quarterback, was mysteriously left out of a New Year’s Six bowl. Figuring his team was bound for the Cotton Bowl, Harsin sat stunned as the pairings were revealed. He then grew angry and, finally, frustrated enough to realize that as fierce of a competitor as he is, he couldn’t compete for his sport’s top prize at his alma mater, even in the most perfect place in America.

Dec 7, 2019; Boise, ID, USA; Boise State Broncos head coach Bryan Harsin celebrates with his team at the conclusion of the second half of the Mountain West Championship at Albertsons  Stadium versus Hawaii Warriors. Boise State defeats Hawaii 31-10.

He had to leave to achieve it all. Because of timing and fit, that just happened to be here, a quaint southern college town with proof that you can, in fact, win it all, despite being nestled in a region of the country rife with football powerhouses.

“He’s in a really tough neighborhood,” says Chris Petersen, the former Washington and Boise State coach, and one of many who helped nudge Harsin along his coaching journey, promoting him to offensive coordinator at Boise in 2006—at that point, his biggest break.

Petersen is part of a sprawling tree of coaches who either have coached at Boise or have groomed coaches who have coached at Boise. You may recognize many of the other names. Dirk Koetter. Dan Hawkins. Harsin, of course. Mike Bellotti. Andy Avalos. The tree’s deepest roots even include a Super Bowl-winning coach, Andy Reid, and a pair of West Coast coaching legends: Victor Rowen and Jim Sochor.

Bellotti, Rowen, Sochor and Reid never coached Boise, but they are partly responsible for one of the damndest things in college football today—a lineage of head coaches at the school that dates back now 23 years and covers five coaches. From Koetter ('98-'00), to Hawkins ('01-'05), to Petersen ('06-'13), to Harsin ('14-'20), to Avalos (2021), each Boise head coach is a Boise guy who either played for or coached with the previous Boise coach at, of course, Boise. Some of them are even from Boise or nearby (Koetter and Harsin).

Like a royal monarchy, the man seated atop the House of Boise passes his scepter to the next in line. In the modern day of college football, it is a rarity. The results, so too, are rare: Boise, outside of last fall’s pandemic-shorted season, had won at least 10 games in 14 of 18 seasons, dating to Koetter’s first year in 1998.

“The continuity really helped things,” Petersen says. “It’s been a healthy progression. I felt like when I left, it was time for me to leave. It was time. It was time for Boise State as well. They needed a new energy in there.”

And so off went Petersen to Washington. And before him, Hawkins to Colorado. And before him, Koetter to Arizona State. And, now, Harsin to Auburn. It’s maybe the biggest of all the leaps of those from the House of Boise—a plunge into the Deep South, into the SEC West and into a state where Nick Saban resides.

No one here at Auburn is oblivious to the hard facts—this is going to be difficult.

“We have a chance to challenge ourselves in a way that most people don’t get to,” says Brad Larrondo, Auburn’s chief of staff and one of about a dozen staff members who joined Harsin from his Boise staff, also one of the many people who refer to Auburn’s new coach by a shortened last name.

“Hars thrives on that. He embraces a challenge. It fires you up every morning.”

There is no bigger challenge for the staff here than recruiting. Auburn is geographically placed in what many might describe as the most football-crazed recruiting hot bed in the country, wedged between an exploding Atlanta metro area and talent-laden Florida, with its SEC competitors jockeying for the country’s top athletes.

It’s different down here. This isn’t Boise, where the surrounding Treasure Valley and its high schools feed into the university, a monopolized recruiting system that routinely produces the Mountain West’s best signing classes.

In the South, there are more players in this space, both prospects and recruiters, rummaging across a region, down two-lane highways and over gravel roads for future stars.

Koetter has never seen anything like it. His career took him from Boise to Arizona State and then into the NFL, where he worked exclusively for more than 15 years in the South. If anyone knows what Harsin is about to face—the difference between West Coast recruiting vs. southern—it’s Koetter.

“I had always been a West Coast defender,” he says. “I defended the Pac-12, defended West Coast football. When I left Arizona State and went to Jacksonville… Urban Meyer was at Florida. Everybody was crazy for football there. It blew me away. The caliber of high school football in the South and how recruiting is year-round and so intense. I was shocked.

“There was a year-round recruiting radio show in Jacksonville. I mean, all year a show about recruiting,” he continues. “There is nothing like that on the West Coast. That’s going to be the biggest eye opener for him—year-round recruiting.”

In many ways, recruiting for Harsin really kicks off Saturday, when his Auburn team makes its first public debut (if you can describe a spring game as such). The A-Day Game is scheduled for at 1 p.m. kickoff at Jordan-Hare Stadium and will be streamed live on SEC Network plus.

It’s a first, small step to reaching the pinnacle of college sports, a place he couldn’t attain at his old stop.

Harsin Auburn 1

Even sitting in his new chair at Auburn from a window-lined office, Harsin holds the same strong feelings about the College Football Playoff that he did while at the Group of 5 level. Any team that wins every game should have a chance to compete for it all. That won’t happen under the current postseason model, he acknowledges.

However, at Auburn, “that’s one thing that’s very clear,” Harsin says, “win the SEC and you’ll have a chance to play for a national championship.”

It’s not the only reason he made the move. It felt like a good fit and he feels like he left his alma mater, he says, in a good place. That helped soothe any pain.

In the last month, his wife Kes arrived in Auburn with their two daughters, 20-year-old Devyn and 18-year-old Dayn, a freshman at Boise State who will start at Auburn in the fall. For a while, it was just the boys, Bryan and 14-year-old son Davis, crashing at a booster’s condo and living a bachelor lifestyle that included grocery shopping while hungry (bad idea) and failing to properly operate a dishwasher (Bryan had to phone Kes, who revealed to him the big secret: you have to hit start).

For Bryan, the toughest part of the move was leaving behind his father, Dale, a long time funny car race driver who’s in the middle of rebuilding his son a 1969 Mustang. Bryan is hoping that, by this summer, the paint job is complete and Dale can tow the car to Auburn on a trailer pulled by his truck.

When Bryan broke the news to his pop, Dale was disappointed in his son's leaving, but he also delivered a message.

“He said there are things in his own life where he’s had opportunities that he didn’t take and you look back and go, ‘Probably should have took it,’” Bryan says.

And so here is Bryan Harsin, having passed the Boise throne onto the next in the lineage, Avalos, the latest in this sprawling House of Boise. The former Oregon defensive coordinator played for Peterson and Harsin. Harsin, meanwhile, played for Koetter, was hired as a graduate assistant under Hawkins and was promoted by Petersen.

Petersen worked with Koetter under Bellotti at Oregon in the mid-1990s and he was hired at Boise in 2001 by Hawkins, who was hired at Boise by Koetter in 1998. Koetter coached with Reid, now the Kansas City Chiefs head man, on Rowen’s staff at San Francisco State in the 1980s, and Hawkins and Petersen both played at UC Davis for Sochor.

It’s a spiderweb of coaching connections among men who all have nicknames—Hars, Hawk, Cut, Pete—and they’re all somewhat similar, too.

“Everybody is very much into the science of football—the details and all that,” Hawkins says. “Also, we are all able to understand the greater scope of life outside of football. We’re not so myopic.”

As a player, Harsin saw the very start of this lineage. In fact, he had four coaches at Boise State, the last of which was Koetter. The coach recalls his backup quarterback always offering coaching advice to the coach himself. Players often did that, and Koetter would shoo them away. But not Harsin.

“Hars would tell me stuff and I’d go, ‘That’s a good idea,’” Koetter laughs.

As a player, Harsin is described as mentally tough, a grinder who never really saw the field but forever lurked around it. He was always looking to work, says Jeff Pitman, Auburn’s head strength coach and a Boise graduate who has now worked under Harsin for years. Koetter hired Pitman as his strength coach in 1998. He recalls his first interaction with Harsin. The quarterback, fresh off of hernia surgery, walked into the weight room for summer conditioning wanting to lift weights.

“Trainers said he can’t do these things and he came in and said he was going to do them,” Pitman says. “We had a nice discussion on the spot.”

More than two decades later, Harsin is still lifting heavy weights. He’s a 44-year-old jacked father of three who can pump right alongside his own players.

“He goes and goes and goes,” Pitman says.

bryan harsin 1

Twenty years later, when Harsin left Boise for Auburn, the House of Boise lineage was in jeopardy of fading. In fact, Koetter says he and other former Broncos head coaches got involved. They urged the school to maintain the line.

“I was leading the charge and Coach Pete and Hawk, too,” Koetter says, “to keep it going in the same line. We had a lot of Boise candidates. I’m glad they chose one.”

And, so, the House of Boise lives on. And its branches are now strewn across the nation. Harsin is now in the Deep South. Petersen, 56, remains at Washington after stepping down in 2019, but is not ruling out a return to the profession. Hawkins, 60, is at UC Davis, an FCS program, and Koetter, 62, recently retired.

Koetter just sold his house in Atlanta, in fact, and plans soon to move into a home he’s building in a beautiful place, described by some as perfect, where the great outdoors meets one of the fastest growing cities in the country.

The first member in the House of Boise is, of course, returning to Boise, months after the latest member left.

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