When Chris Petersen left Boise State last Friday after eight seasons to become the head football coach at the University of Washington, a large portion of Bronco Nation was left speechless and shocked.
Who would replace the winningest coach in Boise State football history?
Of course, some of the same feelings of shock were experienced in 2005 when head coach Dan Hawkins left for Colorado and to a much lesser extent in 2000 when Dirk Koetter headed off to Arizona State.
But this wasn’t Hawkins or Koetter. This was two-time Fiesta Bowl champion Chris Petersen, who elevated Boise State football from regional darling to national brand.
Harsin, the 37-year old former Bronco quarterback, was a popular choice amongst many in Bleacher Report’s recent poll on the matter, but naturally there are critics with every decision.
However, critics aside, there are a few reasons why Boise State athletic director Mark Coyle should be commended for what appears to be a solid decision in the hiring of Harsin.
A Hometown Hero and Petersen Disciple
When Harsin said “we’re coming home” upon being made Petersen’s replacement as head coach of the Broncos, he wasn’t being facetious.
A graduate of Capital High School in Boise, Harsin went on to become a quarterback at Boise State, serving as backup to Bart Hendricks for three seasons from 1997-1999.
In 2001, Harsin returned as a graduate assistant for the Broncos and served in some way with the program through 2010, most recently as the Broncos’ offensive coordinator from 2006-2010.
It is not surprising that Harsin, as well as Koetter and former Boise State assistant Justin Wilcox, were the top candidates to replace Petersen, per Todd Dvorak of the Associated Press (via Yahoo! Sports). The amount of success that the program has enjoyed over the past decade and a half is unprecedented during the school’s run as an NCAA program, and despite Petersen leaving for Washington, there is no reason to change philosophies.
But Harsin over all the others resembles the mold of Petersen.
While also having strong defensive squads during the latter half of the last decade, Boise State was known for its powerhouse offenses. Harsin was the man in charge of that.
In addition, in an article by Idaho Statesman staff, it was mentioned by Harsin’s father Dale that Bryan was responsible for recruiting a number of current Boise State players, via the Idaho Statesman.
Perhaps his experience as a Boise State player makes him an ideal recruiter. Either way, his talents in the department were recognized.
Coyle on Harsin: I wanted a relentless recruiter. That's one thing Coach Calipari taught me. You've got to have the kids.— Brian Murphy (@murphsturph) December 14, 2013
One of the things that made Petersen such a great coach was his ability to seemingly recruit the right players for his system and then develop them to their fullest potential.
Harsin must keep on guard to avoid falling into the trap of trying to emulate his mentor too much. But it would not be surprising to see him employ many of the tactics that made Petersen so successful in Boise, which should ultimately make Harsin successful as well.
An Offensive Mind
As mentioned earlier, some of the best Boise State football teams over the past decade have been characterized by solid defenses but even better offenses.
Whether as offensive coordinator at Boise State or at Texas from 2011-12, Harsin has been instrumental in the sustainment or improvement of the offenses for which he is responsible.
From 2007-2010, the Broncos finished no worse than No. 18 nationally in total yards per game offensively.
In 2010, a year before Harsin took the offensive coordinator job at Texas, the Longhorns ranked No. 58 in total offense per game. In his first season in Austin, the team improved to No. 54. Last season, Texas was at No. 40 nationally.
Put simply, Bryan Harsin can institute an offensive game plan that will move the ball down the field. With him as the head man in Boise, the Broncos will score points.
More than anything, that is what the team needs to do to win in the Mountain West Conference.
Having a great defense is a wonderful asset and may be a requirement for a team to repeat the success of, say, the 2006 and 2009 Boise State squads.
But that is looking too far down the road and is getting away from the main point. Critics of Harsin may bring up the issues in the defensive secondary as one of the reasons the Broncos struggled in 2013.
Harsin’s job, with regard to that, is assembling a team of assistants capable of taking a young defensive squad and developing it so that there aren’t recurring problems from one year to the next.
Boise State needed an offensive mind to remain headed in the right direction for the future. Luckily, it ended up with the same mind that helped bring home two Fiesta Bowl trophies.
If you’re a MWC program, it’s hard to be unhappy with that logic.
Young, Qualified and Determined
At 37 years old, it is safe to say that if Harsin is successful as head coach at Boise State, the Broncos will not need to conduct another coaching search for the football team for quite some time.
The opportunity to become head coach at the school he grew up watching, played for and became involved with as an assistant makes Harsin even more likely to stick around than Petersen was.
Imagine saying that one year ago.
Harsin’s willingness to bolt for the Texas job and then more recently to Arkansas State for a one-year stint as head man of the Red Wolves is indicative of his career goals. He wanted to become a head coach.
He probably wasn’t expecting the Boise State job to open so soon, but his willingness to jump on it was clear. He has been welcomed back as if he never left.
But Harsin’s hiring is well-deserved and not simply the result of him being a “Boise boy.” His career trajectory backs that notion up, as does athletic director Coyle’s remarks.
Coyle: "(Harsin's) not the head football coach because he's from Boise, Idaho. He's the head football coach because he's very qualified."— Brian Murphy (@murphsturph) December 13, 2013
If that isn’t enough, perhaps a history lesson on the two prior Arkansas State coaches before Harsin can sway the critics.
In 2011, Hugh Freeze led the Red Wolves to a 10-2 overall record and went undefeated in the Sun Belt Conference. That December, he accepted the Ole Miss job and has since led the Rebels to back-to-back bowl appearances.
In 2012, Gus Malzahn became head coach of the Red Wolves and led the team to a 10-3 overall record and second consecutive Sun Belt title. In December of last year, Malzahn accepted the Auburn head coaching position. The Tigers will play in this year’s national championship game after finishing 3-9 last season.
This season, Harsin led the Red Wolves, without record-setting quarterback Ryan Aplin at his expense, to a share of a third straight Sun Belt Conference title and a GoDaddy Bowl berth.
If the third time is really a charm, then what kind of pot of gold did Boise State stumble upon when Bryan Harsin decided to come back home?
It should be fun to find out.