AUBURN — Bryan Harsin wanted them to coach him. It was his pop quiz, his accountability strategy. For years in Boise State’s Tuesday team meetings, he singled out players at random. Quarterbacks fell under the spotlight most.
“What are their fronts?” quarterback Jaylon Henderson remembers Harsin saying. “What do they do on third-and-medium? What is their top coverage on second-and-10?”
“If you were wrong,” Denver Broncos quarterback Brett Rypien says, “that obviously showed that you hadn't put in the time or effort to watch any film.”
Bryan Harsin wanted quarterbacks to draw plays. It was his first variation of the quiz, when he was a burgeoning offensive coordinator. “He wasn't afraid to throw a redshirt on the board and make you draw the play that we’re going to run on Saturday and teach us through it," says Kellen Moore, whose 50 wins are most by a quarterback in college football history. "At the time, it feels a little daunting.”
Bryan Harsin wanted to run Auburn football his way. It hasn’t worked smoothly. His job is in jeopardy after 17 games. His detractors question how he climbed the career ladder from Mountain West to SEC in the first place. His most successful disciples attest he did it with tough-love coaching style and outside-the-box exercises. “It wasn't easy playing for him,” Rypien says. “I don't think anybody that played for him would say it was a walk in the park. But it was all worth it. Really the most influential coach I think I've ever had in my life.”
Bryan Harsin wanted Rypien to study New England’s red zone offense. It was the offseason before Rypien’s senior year. He had eyes on the NFL. Harsin assigned film study projects. Rypien presented his breakdowns to the coaching staff. He pitched kill plays based on his studies. Boise used them.
Bryan Harsin wanted to conduct a psychological experiment. In 2008 he was still getting to know Moore. Seven-on-seven periods began one practice. “There’s no script,” Harsin told Moore. “You call it.” This wasn’t like the pop quizzes, though. He revealed afterward that he wanted to figure out which plays Moore felt most comfortable with.
Bryan Harsin wanted to teach beauty in simplicity. Another practice brought another surprise for Moore. Harsin called one of Boise State’s core plays, “Climb,” to start a two-minute drill. Moore threw to his running back. Next play: “Climb.” Moore spotted his slot receiver. Next play: “Climb.” Backside receiver. Same play, the whole drive. “It was a play we were going to run two or three times in a game," Moore says. "One of the coolest things ever from a player’s perspective, just how based off the defense and the reaction, every guy eventually got the ball."
Bryan Harsin wanted to reveal value in complexity. His pre-Auburn reputation? Pro-style trick play legend. "What we were doing at Boise was as complex if not more than what I was doing my first couple years in the NFL,” Rypien says. Practice moves at breakneck pace. “It was harder than the game,” Henderson says. “I think Harsin did that by design. I used to wake up and have a pit in my stomach going to practice like I was about to play in a game.”
Bryan Harsin wanted accountability off the field. He kept a bulletin board at Boise State with news clippings about college athlete arrests. “I’ll never forget,” Henderson says. “We called it the dumb--- board.” Every week a new article was posted.
Bryan Harsin wanted his players to know the difference between eagles and tigers, even before Auburn hired him. Boise State's terminology for ball security was “eagle claw.” He singled out Henderson one day and asked for the phrase. “Tiger claw,” Henderson said confidently. Everybody laughed. He blushed. "I need to know my stuff," he thought.
Bryan Harsin wanted to be firm and flexible in quarterback competitions. He used two in 2017. Three in 2019. Before Rypien’s enthralling senior season, he got benched. “One of the hardest times in my football career,” he says. But every week Harsin told him and Montell Cozart the battle was renewed. He didn’t sugarcoat. “Whoever does their job the best is going to stay on the field,” Rypien remembers. “It's not rocket science.” That’s how Harsin treated 2019 when Henderson earned his chance as a juco transfer. It’s how he’s handling Auburn's delicate combination of injuries and poor production right now.
Bryan Harsin wanted to run Auburn football his way. The way he ran Boise State. It's not easy playing for him. This time, results haven’t shown. If the nationwide speculation is true, the end might be near. Was he in over his head? Did he adapt enough? Here’s one thing you should know about Bryan Harsin: He keeps believing in his way. When Moore, now the Dallas Cowboys’ offensive coordinator, visited Auburn practice for a day this offseason, he saw Harsin as a head coach up close for the first time. Moore chuckled as he sat in on the team meeting. Harsin asked position coaches to call on random players. Then he quizzed them, reviewing the plays Auburn practiced the previous day.
This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: The Bryan Harsin Way, from Boise State to Auburn football