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Bryan Harsin & Arkansas State: Rising Through The Ranks Or Fleeing A Culture?

Probably both.

Brendan Maloney-US PRESSWIRE

I learned some things about Harsin's time in Austin. I'lll share some of it. I believe it's fairly reliable insofar as it represents a perspective, one which is colored by everyone's natural tendency to view themselves as the hero in their own tale. And it's filtered through other people, each with their own agendas, ranging from pro-Mack to blow it all up and start over types. I'm generally averse to the gossipy side of the program reports, because it's incongruent with my bottom line interest (enjoying football) and it tends to attract a variety of reader that I loathe.

Those disclaimers made, here's what I know about what influenced Harsin's departure...

From a 10,000 foot view, Texas football under Mack Brown is now an exercise in cognitive dissonance. As an assistant, how you deal with that dissonance determines your happiness here. Longhorns assistants are paid in the top 1% of college assistants, incur virtually no expenses, get sweetheart deals on cars, houses, phones, and generous expense accounts, have access to perks accessed through the university or friends of the program, and live in a great city several cuts above the average college town.

Because of prestige, and the financial and lifestyle benefits, there's a natural tendency among coaches here to choose to affect what they can, look past the various documented program elephants in the room, and hope for the best. Most football coaches, by training and attitude, don't like to rock the boat. They're compliant. Nick Saban constantly manufactures tension to keep his staff from bloat and complacency. Others rely on natural turnover as other programs seek to take their assistants to duplicate their mojo. Up or out.

At Texas? Well...

Mack Brown's natural preferences for comfort and harmony amplify the structural complacency at Texas tenfold. Guys that aren't natural careerists can quickly adopt that mindset here, because there's no realistic counterweight against it. Bryan Harsin couldn't adapt. So he left.

Away He Goes

- Harsin took the Arkansas State job because 1). it was an acceptable option and 2). he wanted out. And #2 influenced his perception of #1. The Arkansas State job itself is adequate, but his obvious preferred career path would have been success at Texas followed by a move to a mid-tier FBS program or a sleeping giant/high lifestyle lower FBS school (say, San Diego State). Not the Sun Belt.

- A decent portion of the offensive staff was happy to hold the door open for him. The reasons for that are varied, some having to do with Harsin's natural personality and philosophy, partly because it advances the career of internal staff who clashed with him (Applewhite is now primary OC, Wyatt elevated to co-OC, Searels is now assistant head coach - they all just secured raises and promotions with Harsin's departure), and a lot of it having to do with Harsin's reaction to the suboptimal ways Texas runs its football program.

- People who have embraced cognitive dissonance, while often fully aware of the problems, don't appreciate people pointing out that dissonance to them. Particularly when it reminds them that their acceptance of same helps to continue the cycle. We've all been there, probably on both ends. It's human nature.

- Mack Brown was wounded by Harsin's departure, but did nothing to impede it. Brown understands at some level that Harsin left because of the culture he created. Brown is also happy to rid the staff of strife and believes that programs move forward because of cohesion and unity. Mack Brown doesn't believe in creative tension. Conflict in a family, even in its healthiest forms, bothers him.

- Harsin and Applewhite had some tension. Both believed they should be the primary coordinator of the offense. Only one was - Harsin. Both are roughly the same age, bright, highly opinionated, and neither felt they should take the backseat to the other. Applewhite was forced to be the junior man in the relationship and he resented Mack's imposition of training wheels. Particularly with a guy he considers his coaching peer.

Texas Cognitive Dissonance Culture

- Like Will Muschamp, Harsin didn't have much regard for how things were done at Texas in a number of football related areas. He mostly held his tongue, but when he didn't, the comments - or his incredulous non-verbals - were cutting. And other staff members resented it, even some that agreed with him. For example, if arguing a recruiting evaluation or a development idea, although he wouldn't say it this bluntly, the unstated subtext was: "Why is it we had much more talent at little Boise State with our limited resources in a state of potato farmers than you have at Texas with unlimited resources sitting in the middle of a NFL talent corridor? The poor talent we're now coaching is a direct result of your bad past ideas."

- But several of Harsin's colleagues were new, too. They didn't want to be saddled with that program baggage. And veteran staff members like Applewhite resented criticism because they felt that they were trying to change things from the inside, are committed to Texas for the long haul, and are partially responsible for Harsin being here to begin with.

- Someone like Akina deals with the dissonance by creating his own reality island called DBU and spends his time hyper-focused on "his guys" and ignores the larger issues, unless they directly impact his fiefdom. That's understandable, but has its own drawbacks, as Manny Diaz found out when he'd try to install team defense concepts that conflicted with Akina's individual development model. Texas is allegedly a base zone defense. And our DBs spend most of their day in 1 on 1 man coverage drills. Dissonance. This is a staff of petty suzerainties.

Programs Value Different Things From Teams

- This part is my surmise based on a couple of stories I won't relate. Harsin fundamentally believes in committing to players and letting them grow into the job. But he will criticize and coach every minute detail of play. He is never off of their asses, but he won't take their job until it's clear that their growth is maxed or there's a better option. Mack is the exact opposite. He pumps the player up, focuses on generalities ("everyone just beat the guy in front of you, OK?), but if the player fails, after a loss, you make a quick change. If the player plays unacceptably during a win, that's OK. Because Texas won. There's an irreconcilable tension there. And it drove the process-focused, long term program-minded Harsin nuts. Brown is coaching for today.

- Brown understood and acknowledged all of the talent and experience deficiencies of the offense during the offseason and while the team was 4-0. When losses started to happen and the offense would struggle, his questions all started from square one. Wins and losses drive Mack's analysis - not process.

- There is still dead weight on the football staff and support staff. When you constantly create work-arounds for that dead weight, you send a message to other staff members and players that you're not about optimizing. The players realize which coaches know their stuff. And which support people are unproductive - some of them at practice every day. So when you lecture the team on accountability and they see clingers all around, they think the coaches are hypocrites. The dissonance at Texas exists at all levels.

Media Is Not The Problem

- Texas is not a football-focused environment. That observation has nothing to do with media obligations or the LHN. ZERO. NADA. ZIP. It's about basic mindset and culture. Several of the assistants actually like most of that stuff and think it is well-managed - all you have to do is show up, hit your mark, and then you're on your way. The hosts and technical people are outstanding and respectful of time. They all see the marketing benefit.

- The issue is more along the lines of the constant indulgence and the constant seeking out of extraneous bullshit. Several assistants feel that the locker room and practice field are sacred. Wives, monied alums, Bellmont drones, random speakers, player parents with special status, and various staff dead weight ("So what exactly does he or she do and why are they coaching my player?") were a constant presence on the field and in the locker room. Those people do not supply aggression or focus to football players. It's a circus. Even while this was happening, Mack would instruct the staff that they needed to focus on football first and avoid the distractions that managing their own lives or career ambitions brought. "You guys need to stop worrying about the next job and focus on the one here."

Foundations Of Chemistry 101

- Harsin thinks football is fun when you win all of the games and achieve tangible things. Real camaraderie and chemistry come from that. Shared achievement. The Texas program is run in way that suggests that fun and chemistry is created by having constant guests, speakers, enrichment, mandatory chants and displays of emotion, themes, forced celebration, and regimented spontaneity. Texas football has a fake culture of fun which, once the wins go away, is just a hollow pantomime. Upper classmen - ostensible leaders - are burned out and roll their eyes. Genuine emotion is suppressed in the locker room and on the practice field and when it does come out, it's usually boiling over, ugly and misplaced.

- Brown undermines the staff in passive aggressive ways in player relations and in setting general tone, sometimes unknowingly. OU Week is just one screaming example. The staff undermines each other, too, because Brown won't allow the conflict that might actually lead to real resolutions.

- Harsin wasn't loved by some of the players, mostly because he didn't feel that being loved by the players was particularly important, and that the player's job was to win over the coaches with their play and preparation. This was a minority view.


From a pure X and O standpoint, Harsin leaving is not a particularly big deal. Applewhite is a good coach and should be a solid play caller. He may even be an inspired one, if his old QBing attributes translate.

But it does demonstrate the cultural rot in the program. Harsin was fed up after only two years, after the program had supposedly been rebooted. And the feeling was mutual when it came to his peers. To what extent is that enmity Harsin's fault and how much of that is the fault of a false achievement culture? I don't know.

What is clear to me is that Bryan Harsin was brought to Austin to install an offense. He realized quickly that what Texas really needed was to install a different culture. And that his offense could never be optimized without it. The best way to create a football culture is to be in charge of it. So he left for the first job where he could do just that.

When Muschamp left in 2010 for Florida, it didn't take long for Bellmont and some of Mack's camp followers to begin a smear campaign against him to validate UT sticking with Brown. Oddly, some Texas sites and fans carried water for that campaign, despite its illogic.

They should think twice about doing it again.