Why Bryan Harsin’s Auburn football coaching staff checks a lot of the right boxes

Josh Vitale
Montgomery Advertiser

Bryan Harsin said during his introductory news conference on Dec. 24 that when it came to hiring a staff, he was going to follow an old adage his father always said when he was fixing cars: “Do you want it done right, or do you want it right now?”

The new Auburn football coach’s answer was clearly the latter. He took two weeks to make the first of his 10 assistant coach hires on Jan. 7, then two more after that before he made his last on Thursday.

“We were looking for not just players, but coaches that wanted to be a part of Auburn football and that were going to fit and do things as far as development with our players, connection with our players,” Harsin said. “And certainly the recruiting piece was a major factor for the decisions that we made on our staff.”

MORE:Inside Bryan Harsin's first month as Auburn's coach and what comes next

He checked a lot of boxes.

SEC coaching experience

Harsin has been reminded more than once that he doesn’t have this. But his staff does. That, he said, was “was purposeful.”

Five of the 10 assistants he hired have coached in the SEC, including both coordinators. Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo coached on Mark Richt’s Georgia staff from 2001-14, spending the last eight years of his tenure calling plays for some explosive offenses led by five-star quarterbacks he played a big role in signing and developing.

MIKE BOBO:Auburn's new offensive coordinator has impressive track record with quarterbacks

Defensive coordinator Derek Mason spent the past seven seasons as Vanderbilt’s head coach. He's one of three coaches with coordinator experience on the defensive side of the ball, along with inside linebackers coach Jeff Schmedding (Boise State) and outside linebackers coach Bert Watts (Fresno State).

DEREK MASON:Auburn's new defensive coordinator known for sharp defensive mind, energy

Defensive line coach Tracy Rocker, back for his second stint at Auburn after coaching on the 2010 national championship staff, has coached at five other SEC schools since 2003. He coached four first-round NFL Draft picks and even more All-Americans during those stops.

Offensive line coach Will Friend is credited as being the primary or second recruiter for nine blue-chip linemen across seven seasons at Georgia (2011-14) and Tennessee (2018-20).

Running backs coach Cadillac Williams has only two seasons of experience, both at Auburn, but Harsin said the lone holdover from Gus Malzahn's staff has “just been a joy to work with him so far.”

MORE:Recruits like Tank Bigsby are why Auburn brought Cadillac Williams in as running backs coach

“That experience is helping me,” Harsin said. “What they've been able to go through and be a part of over the years in the SEC has certainly given me a lot of information that's valuable.”

Connection to Auburn

This wasn’t chief among the attributes Harsin was looking for. He declined to retain three coaches who had it – wide receivers coach Kodi Burns (reportedly headed to UCF), defensive line coach Rodney Garner and linebackers coach Travis Williams. But it was important to him.

“I know the pride of playing at Boise State. I know the pride as a coach and being part of that program,” he said. “I understand that, I appreciate that, I embrace that.”

ANALYSIS:Auburn football wanted coach to 'consistently compete for championships.' Is Bryan Harsin it?

And he felt it in his conversations with Rocker, Cadillac Williams and cornerbacks coach Zac Etheridge. Rocker not only coached for Auburn before, but was also an All-American, Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award winner for the Tigers in 1988. Williams ranks second in program history with 3,831 rushing yards from 2001-04. Etheridge was a captain on the 2010 national championship team.

“They've actually been in it, they've experienced it, they bleed orange and blue, they understand what it takes,” Harsin said. “They know what it feels like to lead this program, all right, as champions with a degree from Auburn University. So they can share that with families and players.”

Auburn running backs coach and former player Cadillac Williams greets fans at Auburn Arena in Auburn, Ala., on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019.

Expansive recruiting territory

Bobo, Mason, Friend, Rocker and Williams will play key roles in helping Auburn recruit its backyard of Alabama, Georgia and Florida, which Harsin described as the “No. 1” priority. The four newcomers joined the Tigers from South Carolina and Tennessee, so they know those states, too.


Wide receivers coach Cornelius Williams, a Birmingham native who spent the past six seasons coaching wide receivers at Troy, should add to Auburn’s efforts in its home state.

But Harsin doesn’t just want to recruit the southeast. He wants to recruit nationally. That’s what the other powers in the conference are doing – Alabama just signed the highest-rated class in the history of recruiting rankings, more than half the players in it hail from somewhere other than those big three states.

EARLY SIGNING DAY:Meet Auburn football's 2021 recruiting class so far

That’s where the rest of the staff comes in. Etheridge spent the past three seasons recruiting Louisiana and Texas. Watts played at Cal and spent three years at Fresno State before taking a job at Memphis last season, so he has experience recruiting the West Coast.

Schmedding and tight ends coach Brad Bedell came to the Plains from Boise State, where they were part of Harsin-led staffs that ranked first in the Mountain West in recruiting every year from 2015-20. The players in those classes largely came from Texas, California and Arizona, with some Idaho, Colorado and even Hawaii mixed in.

Recruiting in the SEC against the likes of Nick Saban and Kirby Smart is an entirely different challenge, of course. Harsin will have to prove he belongs, and he’s playing from behind in 2021.

But there is a reason he took his time to hire what he felt like was the right staff for the program he wants to build.

“I think we've surrounded ourselves with coaches that want to be the best,” Harsin said. “They want to compete, and they want to win. And that was a big part of it, too."

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.