Oct. 4, 2013
Co-defensive coordinator/safeties coach Charlie Harbison says Auburn will championships again (Todd Van Emst photo)
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. - In a coaching career that included two stops at Alabama, two at Clemson and stops at LSU and Mississippi State, Charlie Harbison knew all about coaching against Auburn.
"When you played Auburn, you had to come with your chinstrap fastened, because they were going to bring some heat," Harbison says. "They were tough and they were physical."
Harbison thought about that last December when he was offered a chance to join first-year head coach Gus Malzahn's staff as co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach. And then there was the chance to work with defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who gave Harbison his start in coaching at Gardner-Webb three decades ago.
"Given the opportunity, I jumped at it," Harbison says. "Coach Johnson is my mentor. He got me into the game back in the 1980s. I owe a lot to him for my career. He's a big brother to me. Coaching here and being a part of Auburn is a blessing."
Saturday at Jordan-Hare Staidum, Harbison will coach his fifth Auburn game. The Tigers (3-1, 1-1) take on Ole Miss (3-1, 1-1) at 6 p.m. on ESPNU.
Harbison, affectionately known to most in college football as "Cheese," also joined old friend Melvin Smith. They had coached together at Mississippi State and they would share secondary coaching duties at Auburn.
"Melvin and I are like brothers," Harbison says. "It takes a special coaches to work hand in hand together. He's my brother. It's like a hand in a glove. I've known Melvin a long time. I respect his work. He's a great defensive backs coach. I learned from him. He's a man of faith. Neither one of us have egos. It's not about us. It's about Coach Malzahn and the Auburn Tigers."
Smith, who coaches Auburn cornerbacks, welcomed the opportunity to work with his old friend. They work side-by-side through every practice and every game.
"It's awesome," Smith says. "I've shared the secondary with Coach Cheese before. We were able to do some really nice things because we click. We are really brothers from different mothers. We walk together. We talk. We can disagree without being disagreeable. We are always trying to figure out the best way for our players to do it.
"We are both really spiritual men. We look out for each other. We're like two pilots on a plane."
As the Tigers arrive at the halfway point of the season, Harbison says his time has shown him even more than he expected. Success, he says, hasn't come to Auburn by accident.
"Coach Malzahn wants good men around these kids and good men for Auburn," Harbison says. "Auburn is a special place. I've learned more since I've been here about Auburn. I knew they were tough and knew they were going to play 60 minutes. Coming here, you see why they do what they do. It's a family."
And there is no doubt, Harbison says, that more championships are in Auburn's future.
"We are going to continue to work until we reach our goal," Harbison says. "I tell the kids we correct our mistakes, learn from them and keep moving forward. Next snap. Next play. Next game. The main thing is playing with effort, playing smart. You do your job and the next man does his job. Just like in a family, everybody has a role and everybody has a chore."
Harbison was playing in the old United States Football League when he returned to Gardner-Webb, his alma mater, to work on finishing his degree in 1983. There he met Johnson, who was in what would be his only season as the head coach.
That meeting changed the direction of his life.
"I asked him to let me be a student coach," Harbison says. "I was using that coaching experience to learn defense and learn how to break down tape as a player so I could be a better player. Being around him, I learned a lot. It helped make me a better player. At the same time, I got a chance to coach college kids. I fell in love with it."
When his playing days were over, Harbison knew what he wanted to do. He coached in high school, in arena football and in the World League of American Football. In 1992, he joined the staff at Gardner-Webb and began the journey that would lead finally to Auburn.
Along the way, Harbison has become renowned as one of the nation's top recruiters. That, too, he says was a learning process.
"I'm fortunate to help kids be successful on and off the field," Harbison says. "I don't just coach football. We're more than just coaches. Some kids come from different backgrounds, and you have to be able to relate to them and be honest with them. If you show you love them, they will respond."
Harbison took a year off along the way to care for his late wife, Gloria, who died of breast cancer in 2003. It was test of his faith. He persevered and returned to join Mike Shula's staff at Alabama and eventually remarried. After last season, he and his wife, Tammy, agreed it was time to leave Clemson for yet another SEC West school.
Harbison and the rest of Auburn's new staff found a team that, though two years removed from a national championship, was at a low ebb. The Tigers went 3-9 in 2012, losing their last three SEC games by combined score of 150-21.
"I don't really know how it was, but what I see from Day 1 until now is they know we care and they are going to play hard," Harbison says. "They bought in. They know we want them to be successful. They know we love them. They know we want them to graduate. They know we want them to be men, not boys but men."
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: