What does it take to be successful in women's basketball in a conference that consistently produces All-Americans, Final Four teams and national championship contenders? Ask Johnnie Harris. That's what Auburn did when it hired the long-time SEC assistant in April to take over the program on the Plains.
"This is an amazing place," Harris said during a Build Up 2 Basketball appearance on the SEC Network's Paul Finebaum Show. "The fans are great. I get to work next to (men's basketball coach) Bruce Pearl every day, so that's been amazing. Everybody is so supportive, and I think there's a lot of excitement around women's basketball and what we're doing."
Harris said two key aspects of her transition at Auburn have been "learning the culture here and creating our own culture."
The Auburn program has a proud history with four SEC Tournament titles, 21 NCAA Tournament trips and three straight appearances in the national championship game in 1988, 1989 and 1990 under the legendary Joe Ciampi. Terri Williams-Flournoy led the Tigers to three NCAA Tournament visits in four years from 2016-2019, but they fell on hard times the last two seasons, which led to the coaching change.
Harris seems uniquely prepared for the challenge after a season in which Auburn went 5-19 and did not win a conference game. She spent 16 years contributing to the success of the women's teams at Arkansas, Texas A&M and Mississippi State. After following State head coach Vic Schaefer to Texas last season, and helping the Longhorns reach the Elite Eight, Harris answered Auburn's call to take on her first head coaching job.
During her tenure at Mississippi State with Schaefer, the Bulldogs reached back-to-back national championship games in 2017 and 2018 and won the first SEC regular-season and tournament titles in program history. In her
five seasons at Texas A&M with head coach Gary Blair, the Aggies reached four Sweet 16s.
What did Harris learn from two SEC coaching legends in Schaefer and Blair that will help her rebuild the Auburn program? "To be prepared," she said. "Both of those guys work extremely hard so I got a chance to see what that looked like every day. They were always prepared."
Harris herself has earned a reputation as an elite recruiter. She helped sign classes that ranked No. 2 in the nation at Texas A&M and No. 6 in the country at Mississippi State. Her recruiting prowess extends back to her time as an assistant at Arkansas-Fort Smith, where she helped land the No. 1 junior college recruiting class in America.
Harris explained the recruiting philosophy she's brought to Auburn, which at previous stops helped land SEC legends such as former Mississippi State star Teaira McCowan, a two-time first-team All-American.
"To me, it's about recruiting to a fit," Harris said. "Players that fit our system. We look for toughness, physical players, aggressive players because of the way we want to play."
Fit applies to coaches as well. It's early, but Harris sounds like she's found the right place to take that giant step up to head coach.
"This community is all about Auburn," she said. "The people here are great. I couldn't have asked for a better fit."