Let’s start talking about Jared Harper by talking about Bo Jackson.
Bo’s an Auburn deity for reasons far too numerous to list here. But one of them is that he became the on-field foundation of the program Pat Dye constructed. Before Bo arrived, Auburn had lost nine straight Iron Bowls and hadn’t won the SEC in 24 years. His first season they beat Alabama. His second season they won the SEC.
Bo had of course long since run out of eligibility by the time Dye won three more SEC titles, by the time Cadillac went so crazy Auburn didn’t lose for 15 straight games, by the time Wes Byrum split the uprights in Arizona. But Auburn football doesn’t make those accomplishments if Auburn football is not the kind of program where those accomplishments can be made. Bo’s arrival marks the post-Jordan point at which Auburn becomes that program again. I do not believe it an exaggeration to say the Auburn Tigers I’ve known, watched and loved all my life were built first-and-foremost on the shoulders of Bo Jackson.
But he’s not the only foundational legend I’ve had the pleasure of watching come through Auburn. The inside-out tag-team of Vickie Orr and Ruthie Bolton. Kasey Cooper. This man:
Did Jared Harper win Auburn’s first SEC championship in 19 years, Auburn’s first SEC Tournament championship in 34 years, and its first NCAA Regional championship ever by himself? Of course not. Ask me for the signature play of Harper’s Tiger career, and most days I’m going to answer you with a play where he declined the world’s easiest layup to give the ball to someone else.
But I return — over and over and over again — to Bruce Pearl’s record in his first two seasons at Auburn, and his record in his third. Pearl is without question of the best, most consistent basketball coaches in D1. But he went 15-20 his first year at Auburn, then 11-20 his second. Then he signed Harper.
The Tigers went 18-14 the following season, their first winning season in eight years. Their Kenpom ranking went from 189th to 82nd. The next season they hung a banner. The season after that was the greatest in Auburn men’s basketball history.
I will believe until the day I die you can draw a straight line starting with Pearl’s decision to sign Harper, through those successes, to the video below. The video features likely the most talented men’s hoops roster ever assembled at Auburn, concluding with a jumper made by a recruit coveted enough to play for literally any school he desired, a player who before Harper’s tenure would have considered signing with Auburn only in our most feverish daydreams:
Let’s note here that you don’t have to take Harper’s program-paradigm-altering path to the highest tier of Auburn legend status. You can just be an obscenely gifted athlete, one of your Charles Barkleys*, your Cam Newtons, your Frank Thomases, what-have-you. (Behold, another methodology by which Bo was one of one: he forever changed the direction of Auburn football and was one of the freakiest freaks to ever freak the planet.)
Jared Harper is emphatically not one such demigod. From a purely athletic perspective, he might be the most unlikely resident of the upper-pantheon of Auburn legends you could name. Let us peruse his original 247Sports recruiting profile. He’s listed at 5-foot-11, 155 pounds. Of the 97 prospects given a four-star rating in his class, he ranks 60th. 247Sports has no record of any recruiting visits taken, one lonely crystal ball prediction. Auburn is, famously, his first major-conference scholarship offer:
“BP was a great coach for me,” Harper said. “He believed in me from day one. I remember the day he offered me a scholarship. He said, ‘I don’t think you’re a good player, I think you’re a great player.’ Ever since then his confidence in me has been so high, and I have high confidence in myself. Once I knew I could have a coach with that confidence in me – with me being undersized – I knew this was the place for me.”
When you are undersized enough to be open about your own undersizedness, you are not going to be able to lead your basketball program to places it has never been with athletic force and physical brawn. So Jared Harper does so with 28-foot stepbacks, with 90-foot basket-to-basket dashes, with seeing-eye passes two steps before the defense knows to look for them, with the occasional Barnum and Bailey shot at the rim, with every CP3-esque defensive grift ever discovered by sub-6-foot basketball scientists.
To be clear he does so with outrageous talent, yes, because no one can succeed at his level without it. But because no amount of talent can make him a chiseled 6’4″, 220, Jared Harper does so first through sorcery, determination, genius, as much sheer cussedness as I have ever seen in an Auburn athlete.
He does so through work. Hard work. And that work makes things possible for Auburn men’s basketball that were not previously possible.
Jared Harper will never be the most famous Auburn legend. He came to a school with Bo, Cam, Chuck, and all the rest. But he is my favorite Auburn legend. He always will be.
Top screencap via @AuburnMBB video