When Mike Bobo first arrived at Auburn in January, he pulled out some notes that he had kept with him for close to a decade to show football coach Bryan Harsin.
They were from a quarterbacks meeting at Texas. Bobo, then the offensive coordinator at Georgia, took a trip to Austin to visit offensive line coach Stacy Searls, whom the Longhorns hired away from the Bulldogs that offseason. Harsin had just joined Mack Brown’s staff as co-offensive coordinator.
That’s where their relationship began. Harsin spent a day with Bobo in Athens, Ga., the next year while in the area to visit Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who coached him while he was a player at Boise State.
They coached games against each other every year from 2015-19, while Bobo was the head coach at Colorado State. Harsin’s Broncos went 5-0 in those meetings, but there’s no bad blood — he and Bobo, hired to be offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in January, are now working together to design the offense they want to run at Auburn.
“I think the philosophies that he and I both have at the quarterback position and as far as the offensive philosophies — those mesh,” Harsin said. “What we’re trying to do now (is) to blend those ideas.”
How the offensive coordinator and head coach are getting along has become an annual storyline on the Plains. The Tigers have had four of the former over the past five seasons – Rhett Lashlee (2016), Chip Lindsey (2017-18), Kenny Dillingham (2019) and Chad Morris (2020). Then-coach Gus Malzahn called plays some of those years and delegated that role in others.
Harsin, though, has made it clear how things would be run. Bobo will call the plays. The head coach’s job “is to help install and be there for the DNA for who we are on the offense side.”
That will look different with them cooking it up, especially to Auburn fans after they spent 11 of the past 12 seasons watching Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle attack. Both Harsin and Bobo believe in being multiple. There will be spread elements, but as was the case during Saturday’s open practice at Jordan-Hare Stadium, there will be elements where quarterback Bo Nix snaps the ball from under center with a fullback lined up behind him, too.
“Somebody told me one time, 'You’ve got to let them know you’re at the ballpark.' And sometimes, there’s not a better way to do that than to get under center and run power,” Bobo said. “We want to be able to do everything. We don’t want to be just under center. We don’t want to be just spread. We want to be a wide-open, pro-style offense.”
Building that has been a collaborative effort.
“That,” Bobo said, “is the fun part.”
Doing it at Auburn has been special for him personally, too. He’s best known for his time playing and coaching for rival Georgia, but he has a tie to the Plains.
His father, George, recently sold his house in Rabun County to move back to Thomasville, where Bobo grew up. And as they were cleaning out their things, they found a picture of Bobo at Pat Dye Football Camp when he was in fourth grade – the first of four straight years he spent part of his summer in Auburn.
“I never thought the phone was gonna ring and it would be Coach Harsin saying, 'Hey, are you interested in coming to Auburn?’” Bobo said. “But when he did call, the respect I had for him as the football coach that he is — not just offensively, but the kind of team he had at Boise. They were tough.
"They expected to win every time they stepped onto the field. You could feel that when they came on the field. Being able to come to a place like Auburn, with the tradition that Auburn has, I really couldn't pass it up.”
They’ve implemented things Bobo likes to do that Harsin hasn’t, and vice versa. Harsin described Bobo as being “easy to work with” — if they decide they want to change the verbiage of how a play is called, they do it and move on.
“The big thing is we want to be on the same page with everything; you don't need two different things told to the quarterbacks or the offense,” Bobo said. “You might be saying the same thing but saying it two different ways. That's what we're working on right now – that we're speaking the same language.”
They’re still early in that process. Auburn has practiced only four times so far, which is not enough time to learn a new team’s personnel and design an entire playbook. New concepts take time to learn — Bobo estimates that Nix probably has taken no more than 10 snaps from under center in his career, which has been played mostly out of the shotgun. The first-year offensive coordinator is still referring to most players by number because he hasn’t mastered all the names.
But he and Harsin appear to be in lock step as they approach their first season coaching together 10 seasons after they first met in Texas. That bodes well for the Tigers.