When Bryan Harsin finally sat down all those years ago to figure out how much money he was earning at Eastern Oregon, he appreciated that living at the base of the Blue Mountains in government housing for $10 a month and getting free cable were certainly nice perks.
But averaging a measly 38 cents for all the hours he was putting in as an assistant coach?
”You’re just starting out, you have no idea, and that was more, `Do we think this is what we want to do?”’ Harsin said. ”And you’re just trying to figure it out.”
Harsin is no longer in La Grande, Oregon, coaching running backs and wide receivers like he was when he did those calculations as a first-year coach 14 years ago. Today, he has an office overlooking Boise State’s blue turf, where he played in college, where he coached as an offensive coordinator and where he now leads the team as the Broncos’ head coach.
His marching orders are simple: In a changing college football landscape, figure out how to keep Boise State relevant on a national scale, beginning with next Thursday’s opener against No. 18 Mississippi in Atlanta.
It’s been a long time since Boise State was merely an upstart playing on the vivid blue field. Former coach Chris Petersen elevated the Broncos to a level of success and visibility on par with other top programs in the country.
This next chapter will be written by Harsin.
”The thing about it is I understand that expectation level that was set here because I happened to be part of it for a number of years,” Harsin said. ”So to me, every time I’m asked it, and to be honest with you I don’t think about it because that’s just the expectations we have of ourselves anyway to go out there and play and coach and work to be at that level.”
It’s never easy to replace someone who had been idolized. By the time Petersen finally decided to leave Boise State and take the head coaching job at Washington last offseason, he could have won political office in Idaho for lifting the Broncos to national prominence.
Harsin was there for many of the steps during the Broncos’ rise, first working for Dan Hawkins and then being elevated to offensive coordinator under Petersen.
Because he played and coached at Boise State, Harsin has a built-in knowledge of the program. Instead of a new leader arriving to replace Petersen while learning about the culture and history of the program, Harsin is already well-schooled.
He played for three different coaches in his time as a Boise State player. He was on the committee that decided to hire Houston Nutt, the first in a string of coaches that started to raise the Broncos’ profile after making the move up from the FCS level in 1996. He was sent off to Eastern Oregon for his first job because then-coach Dirk Koetter didn’t have a spot on his staff and Hawkins knew EOU coach Rob Cushman.
”You have to do everything. Sometimes you have to tape ankles, sometimes you have to cut the grass, sometimes you have to wash the gear, sometimes you might have to coach a bunch of different positions. You’re the guy who has to order the sandwiches and make sure there is dinner after the game,” Hawkins said. ”I just think there is much more of an investment and you have to do it from the top down and you have an appreciation for what everyone does inside the organization.”
Working for little to nothing in a remote area of Oregon wasn’t the last time Harsin took a risk. He was the next in line at Boise State for years, but believing Petersen would never leave, Harsin went to Texas and spent two years on Mack Brown’s staff before moving on to become the head coach at Arkansas State last season.
And now he’s back, although the surroundings are a little different. Boise State’s investment in football now includes a football operations building and dedicated practice facility. The Broncos are also coming off their worst season since 1998, if finishing 8-5 can be considered a major disappointment.
”You go back in history (Boise State) has won a lot of games over a lot of years with a lot of different coaches,” Harsin said. ”To me, I’ve got to believe in the program that it will continue to be successful, and now that I’m in this position I feel very blessed and fortunate to be a part of it. I believe in the program and that gives me extreme confidence in our chances to have success.”