From a swimming pool to the Plains: How Bryan Harsin became Auburn football head coach

Josh Vitale
Montgomery Advertiser

The story of how Bryan Harsin became Auburn’s football coach begins in a swimming pool.

He and Allen Greene happened to be at the same industry event about five years ago. The first conversation they ever had was in bathing suits, not suits and ties. It wasn’t about Auburn football, either – Harsin would have been in his second season as Boise State’s coach, and Greene the athletics director at Buffalo. In fact, Greene doesn’t even remember what they talked about.

But Auburn’s athletics director does remember meeting Harsin and his wife, Kes. He remembers thinking, “I like that guy.” The conversation stood out in Harsin’s mind, too – when he was contacted about the opening on the Plains he pulled up Greene’s bio and it hit him instantly that they had spoken before.

“Lo and behold, look at where we are right now,” Harsin said Thursday inside Auburn’s athletics complex, after Greene introduced him as the Tigers’ 28th football coach.

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Harsin said he told that story in his first Zoom meeting with Auburn’s players. “You get one shot to make a first impression,” he said, “and it does matter.”

It might be the thing that leads to the biggest career opportunity of your life.

Harsin described the process of landing the job as “a whirlwind.” Those who follow the Tigers closely, especially on social media and message boards, would surely agree.

Gus Malzahn was fired after eight seasons on Dec. 13. The next nine days were filled with nearly every type of rumor, report and theory imaginable, including – but not limited to – a three-year-long coup, a booster-led push to immediately promote defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, a #StopSteele movement that trended nationally on social media and two other candidates emerging as favorites then publicly removing their names from consideration over concerns about staff control.

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Auburn president Jay Gogue described some of that as "misinformation," some of which was "disruptive, inaccurate and malicious." Maybe he’s right – Harsin’s name was hardly mentioned by anybody closely following the search until about an hour before he was officially announced.

The reason it was a whirlwind for him, Harsin explained, is that it all happened so fast. He interviewed via Zoom with Auburn’s search committee on Monday, just one day before he was hired and three days before he boarded a plane in Boise bound for Auburn on Christmas Eve.

The interview didn’t start out on the right foot, either. When Harsin loaded up the Zoom call with Greene, trustee Quentin Riggins and university chief operating officer Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, they could see him, but he couldn’t see them.

“All I was staring at was a blank screen right there,” Harsin said. “I thought, ‘This couldn’t go any worse.’”

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But the interview ended up going great. It helped that Harsin was already comfortable with Greene – he said everything Auburn’s athletics director shared with him was “100% on-point.”

Auburn coach Bryan Harsin and athletics director Allen Greene shake hands during Harsin's introductory press conference on Dec. 24, 2020.

Greene said the conversation covered topics ranging from Harsin’s coaching and recruiting philosophies to his commitment to academics and community service to how he develops young people. There was also talk of offensive and defensive strategy and the importance of being strong along the line of scrimmage, though Greene left most of that up to Riggins, a first-team All-SEC linebacker for the Tigers in 1988-89.

What stood out most to Greene, though, was what Harsin said when asked to “tell us about yourself.” The first thing the coach talked about was his family – wife Kes, daughters Devyn Lynn and Dayn Mykena, and son Davis.

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There are plenty of reasons why a sitting Division I coach might want to come to Auburn. It’s one of the top five programs in the premier conference in college football. It has money, resources, tradition and a passionate fan base. It won one national championship and played for another in the past 11 years.

But Boise State wasn’t just any job for Harsin. He was born in Boise, played quarterback for the Broncos and spent 17 of his first 21 seasons as a college coach strolling the sidelines of a blue football field. He had a great thing going there, too, going 69-19 with six division titles and three Mountain West championships over the past seven seasons.

Harsin spent a large portion of his speech Thursday thanking Boise State for the time he spent there. He ended it with, “Once a Bronco, always a Bronco.”

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The latter part might have stayed true if not for that family he spoke so glowingly about – Greene described Kes as the “top recruiter” and “driving force” behind Harsin’s decision to accept the Auburn job.

“We've had some amazing opportunities in our lives with some amazing people. And every single one of those, we've been together,” Harsin said. “This decision was simple: She was excited about it. She felt how this opportunity would fit our family.

“The reason why we're here is because they all gave the thumbs up.”

Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin celebrates with his wife, Kes, after a 55-7 win over Northern Illinois in the Poinsettia Bowl on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2015, in San Diego.

Sometime during the process, someone told Harsin to read the Auburn Creed and see what it meant to him. The more he read George Petrie’s words – hard work, education, honesty and truthfulness, sound mind and sound body, country, service and God – the more they resonated with him.

“They fit who I am as a person,” Harsin said. “They fit who I am as a coach.”

And maybe it’s fitting that nearly every line of the creed begins with “I believe.” That’s what this marriage took. Auburn people believing it was time to move on from Malzahn. Gogue believing in Greene to make the right hire. Greene believing that Harsin is the coach who can elevate the Tigers to the next level. Harsin and his family believing this was the right opportunity to leave home for.

And to think, it might all trace back to a chance conversation in a swimming pool.

“I know many of you don’t know who I am. But I feel like I know who Auburn is,” Harsin said. “I’m excited to learn more, but as far as what I’ve been able to gather through this and the people that have been involved in it, that’s the reason I’m here, and Auburn is about people. This is what I want to be a part of.”

Josh Vitale is the Auburn beat writer for the Montgomery Advertiser. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoshVitale. To reach him by email, click here.