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Coach Bryan Harsin ready to make himself at home at Auburn

Fun fact about new Auburn football coach Bryan Harsin: He is one of only two head coaches in the Southeastern Conference who never spent a day in the SEC as a player or a coach before taking his current job.

The other, Kentucky’s Mark Stoops, didn’t travel quite as far to get here. He prepped for three years as the defensive coordinator at Florida State, which is as SEC as it gets despite living in the ACC. Stoops, heading into his ninth season with UK, has made himself at home. He’s second in the conference in longevity behind Alabama’s Nick Saban. So there’s long-range hope for Harsin heading into his first game on the Plains.

Scratch that. He has been here before. When Akron visits Auburn to open the 2021 season Sept. 4, it won’t be the first time Harsin has experienced a game day in Jordan-Hare Stadium. It will be the first time he’s done it while stalking the home sideline.

On his initial visit, Harsin led Arkansas State into the Tigers’ den to kick off the 2013 season. It was Gus Malzahn’s opening game as the Auburn head coach. Harsin’s first impression of the place: “You can’t hear a thing. It’s shaking on the field. It’s difficult. I experienced that in a bad way at Arkansas State. Now those folks are going to be on our side.”

Auburn football coach Bryan Harsin talks culture change, NIL and moving South from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

In a strange and perhaps unprecedented twist of fate, Harsin is following in Malzahn’s footsteps for the second time. When Malzahn left Arkansas State to return to Auburn as head coach, State hired Harsin. When Auburn decided to pay Malzahn’s $21 million-plus buyout to coach there no more, the Tigers turned to Harsin.

There are other more conventional ties between them, but as Harsin said, “The weirdness of Gus Malzahn and Bryan Harsin, I can’t explain that.”

He can explain the motivation behind what seemed like a head-scratcher of a personal and professional decision to leave his hometown and his alma mater at Boise State after seven successful seasons as the head coach there to live and compete in the same state as the Alabama program that’s won six of the past 12 national titles. Harsin went on at length on that subject Thursday as the final head coach to take the podium in the main room at SEC Media Days.

Sure, he was as comfortable as a Football Bowl Subdivision head coach can be at Boise, where he went 69-19 with three Mountain West championships, six division titles, five 10-win seasons and seven bowl trips. He and his family had just built a new home there, and “our mindset was this is what we want, this is where we want to be, where we want to stay, and this is what we’re going to do.”

When Auburn Athletics Director Allen Greene called, Harsin said, “It piqued my interest more than any other place.”

“As far as what you’re getting into, here’s what I think,” Harsin said. “For me as a coach and as a competitor, everything I do, I want to win. So the preparation and all the things that go into that, it doesn’t matter if I’m at (Boise’s) Capital High School or I’m at Auburn and coaching the football team there. It all matters.

“So the importance of it, what surrounds it, is definitely different. Definitely different. There’s a lot more attention that goes into being the head coach at Auburn University.

“As far as the importance of my job and how I view it, I’ve always felt like I’ve tried to prepare and find ways to win, and every little thing has mattered to me. I try to work that way and try to develop myself that way. So what we did today in our workouts, it matters. What we do tomorrow and so on. I’m going to continue that.

“I know that the microscope is a lot different at Auburn, but that was part of it, too. As a competitor, and I said this, this is why you come to Auburn. This is why you want to be in the SEC. You want to play against the best.”

Wish granted. This season Auburn has added a road trip to Penn State for its annual White Out game to a loaded schedule that includes the Alabama, LSU and Georgia programs that have won 10 of the past 12 SEC titles and seven of the past 12 national championships.

Then again, only one SEC program other than Alabama, LSU and Georgia has won either of those trophies in that time. Auburn owns the 2010 and 2013 SEC banners and the 2010 BCS crystal football.

That recent history helps explain why the confidence within the Auburn program hasn’t suffered since Harsin arrived. Tony Fair, a graduate transfer defensive tackle from UAB, tweeted Sunday, “We comin to take the head off the ELEPHANT” in a direct challenge to Alabama. During his SEC Media Days visit Thursday, Auburn quarterback Bo Nix stood behind his very large teammate’s very bold words.

“I think that actually I like the quote,” Nix said. “I think it’s important because we’re not scared of Alabama. I know that a lot of people want us to be scared, but we’re really not.”

Nix knows what it means to knock off Alabama because he and the Tigers did exactly that in his first start against the Crimson Tide as a freshman in 2019. It was Alabama’s last defeat.

A few things have changed for both programs since. Nix will be playing more under center in his first season in Harsin’s offense. Harsin will feel the love from thousands of Auburn supporters during the pregame Tiger Walks.

The new coach can’t wait to feel at home on the Plains.

“I’m excited about Tiger Walk,” Harsin said. “I want to walk from South Donahue all the way down into Jordan-Hare Stadium, and I want to see all those people yelling, ‘War Eagle!’ I want to be able to be part of a program that, when you win, your fans go crazy and go downtown and we toilet-paper trees. I mean, how awesome is that?”

Auburn football coach Bryan Harsin speaks at SEC Media Days 2021 from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)