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Harsin has brought creativity to Texas

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Thayer Evans

Senior College Football writer Thayer Evans previously wrote for The New York Times and Houston Chronicle, as well as contributed to The Economist, USA Today, The Washington Post and more. Follow him on Twitter.

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When Kes Harsin heard Dan Hawkins had been hired to coach the Boise State football team a decade ago, she drove to her father-in-law’s to talk with her husband, Bryan Harsin.

The young couple were back in their hometown of Boise, Idaho, after Bryan’s first season as a part-time assistant at Eastern Oregon, his first coaching job. He had been recruiting, but he was also working on a Chevy Blazer with his father in his spare time.

Back then, Harsin and his wife were living in a government-subsidized apartment that cost $10 monthly and buying groceries with food stamps. Kes Harsin wasn’t bothered by the welfare or being away from family and friends, but she knew Hawkins’ hiring was an opportunity for her husband.

Harsin had been a backup quarterback at Boise State when Hawkins was an assistant there. And it was Hawkins who helped Harsin get his job at Eastern Oregon.

Kes Harsin found her husband with his father looking under the hood of the Blazer. She told him they were going to talk with Hawkins about a job.

But Harsin didn’t want to go, telling his wife that Hawkins probably was busy.

“Bull crap,” Harsin recalls being told by his wife. “Get in the car.”

But what Harsin didn't know then was that his wife’s intuition would lead to one of the more memorable moments in college football history.

It’s one that still haunts third-ranked Oklahoma (4-0, 1-0) entering its game Saturday in Dallas against hated rival No. 11 Texas (4-0, 1-0 Big 12) and Harsin, the Longhorns’ genius first-year co-offensive coordinator.

But it’s what Harsin is best known for — Boise State’s infamous Statue of Liberty play that he called on a two-point conversion to beat the Sooners 43-42 in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.

Harsin, hired by Texas in January after the first losing season of the Mack Brown era, faces Oklahoma for the first time since the play that has defined his career. His creative multiple-style scheme full of shifts and motion has been the savior of a young Longhorns offense that has played three different quarterbacks this season.

It also perhaps has more tricks than ever before with Texas having already used a double-reverse pass, the wildcat formation and freshman quarterback David Ash at wide receiver.

“He’s the gutsiest play-caller in college football,” says Mississippi coach Houston Nutt of Harsin, whom Nutt coached at Boise State.

But for all of Harsin’s innovativeness, he makes sure to give credit to whom it is due — his wife.

“She’s always been good about really trying to pump me up and motivate me,” says Harsin, 34. “She’s the reason.”

THE EARLY YEARS


Born in Boise, Harsin started playing football at age 9 in a youth football league. Then, he was one of the bigger players on his team.

So much that other teams had him weigh in before games to make sure he didn’t exceed the league’s weight limit. He played right tackle and defensive line and eventually had to move up an age group because of his size.

Harsin’s growth eventually slowed and he played fullback and outside linebacker his first two years at Capital High School in Boise. At a camp before Harsin’s junior year, he tried playing quarterback on a day his running backs coach was absent, and his head coach told him to continue working on throwing that summer.

At the time, Harsin didn’t even know how to throw a spiral. But he practiced throwing daily that summer with his father, Dale Harsin, after he got home from working at his construction company.

During those evening sessions at area fields and sometimes in front of their house, Harsin would instruct his father, who had never played football, to run routes. Some of Harsin’s throws went so far that his father had to run toward his son at least 20 yards to be able to throw the ball back to him.

“I always hoped I could see the ball coming, so it wouldn’t drill me hard,” the elder Harsin says.

When Harsin returned for his junior year, he was Capital High’s third-string quarterback behind two seniors, but he ended up beating out both of them. It was a daunting job to be the team’s starting quarterback.

In a few months, Harsin had gone from having never played the position to being the successor to Capital High star and future NFL quarterback Jake Plummer.

“I guess I was the only one dumb enough to follow him,” Harsin says.

In Harsin’s first year as a starter, Capital High made it all the way to the state championship game, where it lost. His senior year, his team lost in the state semifinals.

All along, Harsin was focused on the intricacies of football. The elder Harsin recalls his son constantly drawing his own plays on notebook paper while in high school.

“He was always coming up with something that was different,” the elder Harsin says.

One of Harsin’s plays was a skipped pass to a wide receiver meant to look like an incompletion, but it was actually a lateral. The receiver was supposed to pick up the ball and throw it downfield to a wide receiver, who was hopefully open because the defense had quit on the play.

The elder Harsin recalls his son convinced his coaches at Capital High to try the play, and it worked. The team also ran a hook-and-ladder play.

“It was really something to watch it all,” Dale Harsin says of Capital High’s trickery.

While at Capital High, Harsin’s best friend on the football team was Jim Brekke, a highly recruited tight end courted by Pac-10 schools. Harsin, however, was mainly recruited by NAIA and Division III schools, but he also was on Oregon’s radar.

Then-Ducks coach Rich Brooks called Harsin in early 1995 and told him the lone quarterback he would sign that year was Justin Wilcox, who later would serve as a graduate assistant with Harsin at Boise State and is now Tennessee’s defensive coordinator.

Brekke eventually decided to stay home and play for then-NCAA Division I-AA Boise State. Because of Harsin’s friendship with Brekke, the Broncos told Harsin he could walk on, an opportunity he accepted.

“I wouldn’t have recruited me,” Harsin says. “I think I was a good high school quarterback, but just based on my film, I was probably a Division II, III player.”

GETTING HIS START


When Harsin arrived at Boise State, the Broncos were coming off an appearance in the NCAA Division I-AA championship game under legendary coach Pokey Allen, who had been diagnosed with a rare form of muscle cancer. Harsin redshirted his freshman season but played so well in spring practice that Allen promised him a scholarship for the next season.

When Allen took a leave of absence to start the 1996 season because of his illness, Harsin had to remind interim coach Tom Mason daily that Allen had promised him a scholarship. Mason finally relented.

“He wasn’t exceptionally talented, but was a really a smart football player,” Mason says of Harsin. “He had that quiet leadership about him that you want in a quarterback. He was a guy you’d want your daughter to date.”

Harsin was aware of his physical limitations as a quarterback, so he focused on being able to explain and speak the lingo of Boise State’s offensive schemes. It was an invaluable asset early in his playing career when the Broncos ran a West Coast offense filled with shifts and motions, both hallmarks now in his play-calling.

“I tried to use what I knew the best way I could and help myself out that way,” Harsin says.

Allen resigned after Harsin’s redshirt freshman season and died three weeks later. He was replaced by Nutt, who stayed for a year before leaving to become coach of Arkansas.

Dirk Koetter succeeded Nutt and became a major influence on Harsin. While at Boise State, Koetter remembers Harsin suggesting plays during games.

“We used a lot of them,” says Koetter, now offensive coordinator of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars. “He had a very sharp football mind. He always knew what was the right thing to do in the right situation. You could tell he was going to be a good coach right then.”

While in college, Harsin raced alcohol funny cars with his father, who has been drag racing since 1970. He got his license to race as a present from his father when he graduated high school, which made him one of the nation’s youngest drivers.

Harsin once drove a quarter-mile in 6.29 seconds at a speed of 231 mph. He won many races and could have pursued a career in the sport.

“He was serious about attention to detail,” the elder Harsin says. “He’d write everything down.”

Until Harsin finished playing at Boise State and graduated in 2000, he didn’t think much about coaching. By then, he realized how much he enjoyed football.

While at Boise State, Harsin returned to his high school in the summers to help coach quarterbacks during camps. After he did it once, he was encouraged by high school coaches who also worked the camps to consider coaching.

“If you like coaching, you’re pretty good at it,” Harsin recalls being told.

He was interested in coaching and met twice for hour-long conversations with Hawkins, then a Boise State assistant, who explained the ups-and-downs of the profession.

“If you really want to do this, you’ve got to do it for the love of it,” Harsin recalls Hawkins telling him. “You’re not going to make a lot of money, and you’re going to work a lot of hours. You better love it if you’re going to do it.”

TAKING A CHANCE


Harsin was willing to make that commitment, so he started writing letters to NCAA coaches inquiring about graduate assistant positions. Harsin was unsuccessful, but Hawkins recommended that he try part-time coaching and helped him find such a position at Eastern Oregon, a then-NCAA Division III school, that paid $250 per month.

“I don’t know how I’m going to make it,” the elder Harsin recalls his son telling him.

But Harsin, his wife and their newborn daughter left Boise for the first time of their lives and headed for La Grande, Ore., a town of about 13,000. They moved into their government-subsidized, two-bedroom-apartment, which wasn’t supposed to have cable television, but it did.

“We were fired up about that,” Harsin says. “It was awesome. We didn’t tell anybody. That was a bonus.”

As he does now, Harsin worked at Eastern Oregon from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily while coaching running backs and wide receivers. His responsibilities also included filling in the field’s holes with sand and getting up at 5 a.m. for away games and buying Egg McMuffins and hash browns for the team.

“It was a good experience just getting out there and figuring how not to do things first and then getting better at doing it the right way,” Harsin says. “It was fun.”

Those days ended in December 2000, when Harsin, his wife and their then-infant daughter, Devyn, showed up unannounced at Hawkins’ office. Before they walked through the door, they could hear the new coach listening to an answering machine full of messages from coaches inquiring about jobs.

“Hey, Coach, congratulations, I’d like to work for you,” Harsin recalls one of the messages saying.

Harsin talked with Hawkins for an hour and during the conversation naively told him he wanted a job as a position coach.

“Hold on a second,” Harsin recalls being told by Hawkins. “You’ve got to go through this process.”

So Harsin started at Boise State as a volunteer coach. He also worked unloading UPS trucks daily at 4 a.m. and digging ditches for his father’s construction company to provide for his family.

By that summer, Harsin had become a graduate assistant. Because graduate assistants were not paid during the summer, he and Wilcox used to buy pepperoni and sausage pizzas that they sold at night to players who attended Boise State’s summer camps.

“That’s how we made our rent money,” Wilcox says.

After a year as a graduate assistant, Harsin was promoted to tight ends coach and started to become close with then-offensive coordinator Chris Petersen. Petersen gave Harsin increased responsibilities in Boise State’s passing game, which he handled meticulously.

Harsin’s attention to detail is legendary. Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore recalls Harsin spending countless hours preparing for games.

“We were ready for just about anything the opposing team would throw at us,” Moore says.

Moore and Wilcox recall Harsin being just as detailed for practice. On the first day of preseason camp, Wilcox says, most teams’ offenses traditionally line up with two running backs and one tight end in one formation.

But when Wilcox was defensive coordinator at Boise State, Harsin, on the first day, had four different groups of personnel, an empty backfield and plenty of shifts and motion.

“There was no easing into it,” Wilcox says.

When Hawkins left for Colorado in December 2005, Chris Petersen was promoted to his current job as Broncos coach and made Harsin his offensive coordinator. At the time, some questioned the move because Harsin was just 29.

That was quickly forgotten, however, after his Fiesta Bowl magic in his first season on the job. While Boise State’s Statue of Liberty play is remembered most from that game, the Broncos also scored on a hook-and-ladder play on fourth-and-18 from midfield with seven seconds left to send it to overtime.

After Oklahoma scored on the first possession of the extra period, Harsin’s brilliance  again shone on Boise State’s halfback pass on fourth-and-2 from the 5-yard line that went for a touchdown. After the play, Boise State’s players said one word to Harsin: Statue.

All game, Harsin had been trying to call the Statue of Liberty and told his players six times he was going to do it — but he needed the ball on the left middle hash mark.

“All right, we’re going to run statue,” Harsin said. “Screw it. Put it on the left middle.”

Boise State ran the play with tempo coming out of the huddle at the suggestion of Petersen, and the rest is college football lore. Texas coach Mack Brown was among those watching that night, and he never forgot what he had seen.

ON TO Texas


After a disastrous 5-7 record last season in which the Longhorns’ stagnant offense ranked among the nation’s worst in scoring, much-maligned offensive coordinator Greg Davis resigned. Over the years, Harsin had been approached with job offers, but he couldn’t bring himself to take another job, even when Alabama coach Nick Saban once called.

“I can’t move my family,” Nutt recalls Harsin telling him. “You know how pretty Boise is.”

But Harsin’s mind-set changed when Texas was looking for an offensive coordinator. For once, he took the initiative at the urging of his wife and called Brown.

Brown invited Harsin and his family to visit Austin. During the interview, Brown told Harsin he thought Boise State’s offense was more than trick plays.

Brown liked the Broncos’ balanced offense, which had a physical running attack that had turned out 200 yards per game last season. He wanted that for his offense and offered Harsin the chance to serve as his co-offensive coordinator with Major Applewhite.

Harsin had been impressed by Brown and everything at Texas but still struggled with whether to take the job. That was, until he talked with his mentor, Petersen.

“This is an opportunity,” Petersen told Harsin, according to the elder Harsin. “You’ve got to do this.”

When Harsin called Brown and accepted the one-year, $625,000 offer, the legendary coach told him what he wanted to hear about running the offense.

“Go do your deal,” Harsin recalls Brown telling him.

Afterward, LSU coach Les Miles called Harsin about the Tigers' offensive coordinator job, one with a more long-term contract and a larger salary, but he kept his word to Texas.

That’s been a godsend for the Longhorns because of Harsin’s handling of their quarterback shuffle and an offense whose starters are primarily underclassmen. He admits he’s had to be even more creative than usual in his play-calling because of Texas’ lack of depth.

“Hell, we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do,” Harsin says. “If that’s a double-reverse pass or faking a guy here and putting the ball behind your back, whatever we have to do, we’re going to design it that way and we know that our kids are going to be able to do it. It’s fun.”

But even if Texas had more depth and talent, Harsin insists his play-calling would remain creative.

“We’d still be having the flavor and stuff like that we’re doing right now,” he says.

Brown, however, is adamant Harsin doesn’t use “trick” plays. He says Harsin simply takes fundamentals and makes them look complicated.

“Those are plays we work on every day,” Brown says. “That's why they work.”

Regardless of what Harsin’s most creative plays are called, his players are always eager to see what he has in store for them.

“You just have a feeling,” Ash says. “You're calling it, and they're hearing it and they're looking at you like, ‘Oh, we're about to score.' You kind of have that feeling that it's about to happen. It's pretty cool.”

Before every game, Harsin tells his three children to be on the lookout for certain plays. He told them last week to watch for the double-reverse pass Texas used during a win at Iowa State.

“Dad’s going to run that for you guys,” Kes Harsin recalls her husband telling the children.

She also recalls knowing before he accepted that he would become Texas’ co-offensive coordinator. But that’s not surprising, considering she and her husband have been together since she was in ninth grade and he was in eighth grade.

She pursued him after her father told her he had heard Harsin talking about her.

“I love ambition and that he loves what he does,” Kes Harsin says of her husband.

The Harsins have come a long ways from their welfare days. They are living in a rented house in Austin’s posh suburban Barton Creek area.

But that could be temporary. Given Harsin’s success, he is sure to be at the top of wish lists of schools looking for coaches after this season.

And with Harsin finally having left Boise, perhaps the biggest obstacle in hiring him has been overcome.

“He will be a great head coach someday,” Kes Harsin says. “I know it will happen.”

That’s what an assistant coach’s wife is supposed to say. The difference is that Kes Harsin has always been right about her husband’s future.

Tagged: Boise State, Oregon, South Florida, Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, Kellen Moore, Justin Wilcox, Mack Brown, David Ash

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