AUBURN, Alabama — Bryan Harsin is never far from Boise. The Auburn coach is an ardent believer in carefully-crafted plans, hard work, accountability, and one-on-one instruction and mentorship wrapped in blanket of understanding and empathy.

He picked up those traits and molded his own coaching philosophy from his 25 years as a coach and player alongside Boise State greats Chris Petersen, Dan Hawkins, Dirk Koetter, Justin Wilcox, Andy Avalos and others. It’s a blue-collar approach with a personal touch. Petersen calls it his “Built for Life” philosophy. Others have adapted it, but it was mostly tweaked, perfected and handed down by four head coaches from the same coaching tree over the last three decades at Boise State, a program that evolved from college football’s Cinderella into a powerhouse in the 2000s and 2010s.

The philosophy may seem to be filled with platitudes, but the actions behind those words has provided remarkable results.

Harsin echoes the words and wisdom of those coaches in every conversation. His plans are clear. His approach always mapped out. The touchstones unchanged. The approach might seem repetitive, even banal, but it works. After all, the Boise State blueprint led the Broncos to three major bowl games (all wins) and top-5 rankings while averaging 11 wins per season in the 2000s, including a Fiesta Bowl and two 12-win seasons in Harsin’s seven years as the head coach.

“I got a chance to work with some of the best people in the world in what we do,” Harsin told 247Sports from his office overlooking Auburn’s practice fields.

Harsin’s background — his upbringing, if you will — is what makes the decision to leave his alma mater for the SEC last winter so fascinating. He left stability and 10-win seasons at Boise State for a program that has recorded consecutive double-digit winning seasons only once in its 119-year history. The 44-year-old has lived his entire life west of the Mississippi River. Nineteen of his 21 years in coaching have been at Group of 5 schools and he has never coached in the SEC, where patience and job security are rare commodities.

So, why Auburn? Why now?

The new challenge, along with an opportunity to compete for a national championship every year, appealed to Harsin, but he wan’t actively interested in the gig until Auburn athletics director Allen Greene shared his sales pitch in December. Greene, who first met Harsin in a swimming pool in 2015 (yes, a swimming pool), left Harsin with one direction at the end of their conversation: “Google the Auburn creed.”

A few minutes later, Harsin was gobsmacked. The first line was probably all he needed to read.

“I believe that this is a practical world and that I can count only on what I earn. Therefore, I believe in work, hard work.”

The creed, written by George Petrie, the first coach of Auburn’s football program, induced goosebumps. The Auburn Creed, written in 1943, reaffirmed the morality Harsin developed during his 23 years as a player or coach at Boise State. “A lot of the things in there are what we talked about at Boise and I had been apart of that for a long time,” he said. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”

Harsin was no longer just interested in Auburn. He needed Auburn.

“I wanted to be at Auburn and I hadn’t felt like that about any other opportunity. I love Boise. I love that program — I still do — but with this one, I was excited. I was genuinely excited about it.”

Harsin believes the Boise blueprint melds perfectly with Auburn’s ideals. It’s here, in the heart of SEC country, an Idaho kid believes he can build a championship contender with the Boise blueprint serving as the backbone supporting the body of the Auburn Creed. But, again, will it work? He’s an outsider, after all, and at the first sign of failure those same words of morality will be chalked up by critics and naysayers as nothing but banal sounds uttered by another coach from the assembly line.

Harsin carries this message into unfamiliar territory, 2,171 miles away from those who understand and revere the principles. Now it’s up to Harsin to convert the uninitiated into believers, just as he was converted as a backup quarterback at Boise State in the late 1990s.

It wasn’t until Harsin’s junior season as a backup quarterback at Boise State that he was properly introduced to the blueprint developed at Cal-Davis by the likes of Jim Sochor, Bob Foster and Bob Biggs — and adapted by dozens of players and assistant coaches, including Hawkins and Petersen, who played and coached at the California school. Boise State had been successful as a Division II program, but the program was on shaky ground heading into its second year as a Division I school. Houston Nutt guided the program to a 5-6 record in its first season in Division I and left the program for Arkansas in December 1997.

The program was in disarray and a collapse seemed possible. The next coach had to be the right hire.

“We were going down a bad path early,” Harsin said. “We were not a very focused team, like we should have been. Our program changed (with Koetter). We got stronger, disciplined and we got tough.”

Boise State turned to Koetter because, in part, of his familiarity with the program. He coached high school football in Idaho and as an offensive coordinator at Oregon he had attained the credentials, know-how and connections on the West Coast to lead a burgeoning program. Harsin caught on to Koetter’s philosophy quickly and it strengthened his desire to be a coach.

“Bryan was always interested in how and why we did things the way we did,” Koetter said.

Boise State was quickly successful, winning 10 games in 1999 and 2000 while running away with the Big West title and the school’s first two bowl victories. Koetter left for Arizona State following his third season, and the Broncos’ administrators were not keen on making another mistake. They turned to Hawkins, the Broncos’ offensive coordinator. He kept the blueprint but strengthened connections with players and united the roster, Koetter said. Hawkins turned to Oregon (again) and hired Petersen, a close friend and Koetter’s receivers coach while both were at Oregon, as offensive coordinator, and Bob Gregory as defensive coordinator. That’s when the program started to take off, winning four straight WAC championships.

Hawkins proved Boise State was not a flash-in-the-pan. “We believed we could win,” said Harsin, who served as the Broncos’ tight ends coach in the Hawkins era.

Like Koetter, Hawkins left for a bigger gig at Colorado, paving the way for Boise State to stay in-house with its next hire after Petersen had orchestrated record-breaking seasons as the offense’s play-caller. Petersen, however, was reluctant about the job and the extra duties. He was set on following Hawkins, his longtime friend and teammate at UC-Davis, to Colorado. In the end, Petersen was convinced by his colleagues to become the Broncos’ head coach. They knew what so many would later discover in the ensuing years: he was among the best leaders, thoughtful mentors and innovative coaches in the country.

What followed is football history — 92 wins, two undefeated seasons capped by wins in the Fiesta Bowl, five conference titles and four top-10 finishes in eight years. Boise State’s model has been emulated by nearly every small-school program since.

“We wanted to help our guys create a vision and value system that could be a framework for the rest of their lives,” Petersen told Foster Magazine at the University of Washington earlier this year. “It’s about using the platform of sports to focus on principles of success, character development and life skills. It’s about teaching and coaching great beliefs, great habits and great execution in all areas of life.”

Petersen perfected the system at Boise State, and used those same principles to win a Pac-12 title while leading Washington to its first appearance in the College Football Playoff.

Special doesn’t begin to describe Petersen, said Koetter, who coached alongside him at Oregon, where they also lived on the same street in Eugene. It wasn’t until the tail-end of Petersen’s stay at Boise State that Koetter finally bumped into someone comparable to his friend.

Koetter was pondering his future after being fired by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2011. He needed a job and Alabama had a gig. Nick Saban was interested in talking to Koetter about an opportunity on the Tide’s staff. The interview went well and Koetter instead landed a coordinator job with the Atlanta Falcons, but that’s not what was memorable. What was memorable from the conversation was Saban’s demeanor and clear intent.

“Saban knows what he wants in a program. The same can be said for Chris Petersen,” Koetter said. “He knew what he wanted and that was a process. It didn’t happen the first day. When he took over for Hawk, he did the same stuff we did at Oregon and the same stuff we did at Boise as assistant coaches. He really evolved to be the visionary of the program.”

Eight years later, Petersen’s fingerprints remain at Boise State and at programs across the country. Four of Petersen’s assistant coaches are now leading three Power 5 programs and Boise State.

An important part of Petersen and his assistant coaches’ success is built on player development. Again, it seems like a buzzword scribbled on every coach’s resume. “Everybody says they do that, but you have to do the things that it takes to develop talent,” Koetter said.

The perception (real or not) was that Boise State’s coaches turned 3-star recruits into 5-star players. Boise State’s Kellen Moore is the winningest quarterback in college football history (50-3 in four years) but as a 3-star prospect he was part of a 2007 signing class ranked 63rd in the nation, according to the 247Sports Composite.

“Was that development? Were they underrated at that time?” Harsin asked. “I want guys that love ball.”

And what about Leighton Vander Esch, a walk-on linebacker who played eight-man football in high school and became a first-round pick in the NFL Draft in 2018?

“We had the blueprint and we laid it out for him,” Harsin said. “And he did all the work and hit all the checkpoints and did everything necessary and then some. … You’ve got to trust your evaluation. “

That doesn’t mean Harsin will constantly search for diamonds in the rough at Auburn. After all, the recruiting trails in the SEC are much wider than those at Boise State. “We’re going to go after the best players in the country,” he said. “They also have to fit the culture and the things that are important to us, and whatever is important to them.”

Harsin realizes life is different in the SEC. The spotlight is brighter, the pressure more intense. Heck, the first question he fielded at his introductory press conference was about the Iron Bowl.

Harsin chuckled in his office this summer while recalling that surreal moment.

“They’ve been the most consistent team,” said Harsin, who admires the Tide. “There’s a team you can look at, and they have a model for for success. Now, that being said, you’ve got to be who you are. That’s the one thing when I first got here, I made it clear we’re gonna focus on Auburn.”

Auburn has won in spite of Alabama’s incredible success through the years. The Tigers own three wins against the Tide since 2013, the most by any team in the conference. They have appeared in two SEC Championship games (one win) and played for a national title during that time, too.

Yes, it’s possible to win here — and win big.

Like the Auburn Creed declares, it’s work — hard work — that remains a constant force in Harsin’s life.

On a late afternoon in May, Auburn’s athletics building is quiet but Harsin is busy studying in his office. His large desk is strewn with papers. A computer monitor with film of an Ole Miss game is frozen on the screen. Across the room is a board pinned with several pieces of important papers and pictures. One sheet on the board stands out: a recent interview with Petersen about his life as a coach and now a professor. The refreshingly honest and open interview about the challenges of being a leader is required reading for the staff at Auburn, which is composed of SEC veterans and a few assistants from Harsin’s time at Boise State.

This is the blueprint.

“We’re going to get families and players that are going to feel [Auburn],” Harsin said. “There will also be guys we bring into this program and people are going to go, ‘Where the hell this guy come from?’ This program, how we develop our players, this culture, and the people in the program are going to be what helps build the ability to sustain success.”

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