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As close as brothers

AUBURN – Ellis Johnson was the head coach at Gardner-Webb in 1983 when a former player dropped by to talk. A friendship was born that endures to this day.

Charlie Harbison says teaching players to be men is his top priority

Charlie “Cheese” Harbison, a former Gardner-Webb defensive back, was playing in the ill-fated USFL. His playing season was in the summer, and when it was done, he went to see Johnson about helping out at his alma mater.

“I came back to school to finish up some credits,” Harbison says, chuckling at the memory. “I asked him to let me be a student assistant. Actually, at the beginning, I didn’t want to have anything to do with coaching. I came back to polish my craft. You can polish your craft in different ways. That way was if I could learn how to break down film like a coach, it would make me a better player.

“I wanted to be a student of the game. I got that opportunity and got that look in my eye. Here I am.”

Where Harbison is today is at Auburn, where he is co-defensive coordinator and coaches safeties. Johnson is the defensive coordinator, and he told first-year head coach Gus Malzahn from the day he was hired that he wanted to snatch Harbison away from Clemson.

Johnson couldn’t have imagined on that day almost 30 years ago that he and Harbison would work together at Clemson, at Mississippi State, at Alabama and finally at Auburn.

“He came in and wanted to know if he could help,” Johnson says. “You kind of expect him to go out there and throw the ball around with the wideouts, horse around and just kind of be around. But he was always the first one in the door. He was like a sponge. You could tell he really, really got into that coaching.”

So impressive was Harbison that, even as a student assistant, he was soon coaching a position. Johnson left Gardner-Webb a year later to coach at Appalachian State, and he lost touch with Harbison. But the journey had begun.

In 1995, Johnson was the defensive coordinator on Tommy West’s staff at Clemson. They needed a secondary coach. A mutual friend suggested Harbison. West interviewed him and hired him. It was there that Johnson and Harbison became as close as brothers.

Ellis Johnson knew from the start he wanted Harbison at Auburn

“He’s one of the best people I’ve ever known,” Johnson says. “He’s never met an enemy. People can’t help but respect him. He’s respectful of others. He’s considerate of others. He is a very strong personality and a very strong will, but he’s also got a very engaging personality. He’s just one of those type people that, when he meets people, he finds something he likes about them. It’s hard to get anything negative out of him.”

So strong is the bond between the two that, when Johnson married his wife Caroline, Harbison was his best man. Johnson’s youngest son, Charlie, is named after Harbison.

“He’s my big brother,” Harbison says. “He’s special to me. When I say big brother, I mean that. That’s not something I throw around. He’s family to me.”

Along with cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith and defensive line coach Rodney Garner, Smith and Harbison have gone to work on building a defense for Malzahn’s first season as head coach.

“The bottom line is get the system in and get them consistent, then polish their craft,” Harbison says. “It may be in pass coverage, in run defense, tackling and doing the little things. Everything is made up of little things. It’s a process. The bottom line is making sure we are fundamentally sound.”

Harbison will coach the traditional safety position and the Star position, a hybrid that is part safety and part linebacker in Johnson’s 4-2-5 scheme.

“The Star is actually a little bit of a linebacker and a little bit of a defensive back,” Harbison says. “He’s a talented guy that can do a lot of different things. He’s a different cat. You don’t have to have a nickel back. He’s already that guy. You don’t have to sub for him.”

Auburn’s new coaching staff is faced with the challenge of convincing players to put the numbing disappointment of last season’s 3-9 season behind them, to again believe and play with confidence.

“I don’t know what happened here last year, and it’s not my place to judge,” Harbison says. “We just have to see where we were, what we need to get to fill the gaps in a new defensive scheme. We had to work almost around the clock in recruiting.

“I want kids to be men. One thing about me is I’m going to treat every kid I coach like he was my own. What you speak, they have to see in you.”

Though they had little time together, Auburn’s coaches put together a recruiting class ranked No. 12 in the 247Composite rankings. It was, Harbison says, a remarkable accomplishment.

“For us to finish the way we did just goes to show what Coach Malzahn has brought in with a staff and the relationship all the coaches have,” Harbison says. “Understanding this league, going out and being yourself and selling Coach Malzahn and the future and his vision, it was amazing. I thank God for how things lined up.

“You do something that’s not real, the kids are going to know it and their parents are going to know it. I’m going to sell Auburn and sell my boss, Coach Malzahn, and his vision. Everybody here is real.”

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