One-on-one With MSU Coach Charlie Harbison

Mississippi State safeties coach Charlie Harbison talks about his current players, the MSU coaching staff, his special relationship with MSU defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson and how he got the Coach Cheese nickname.

What are your thoughts about joining Coach Croom's staff?
"As for me taking a job here, I am blessed to be here. The Lord touched Coach Croom's life and touched him to bless me and be with this great staff. And Ellis Johnson is my big brother. He's taught me a lot about this game. And he brought my name to Coach Croom.

"I'm here by myself. My kids are in different parts of the the United States, but I have a family with Coach Johnson. And I have guys on this staff who are like brothers to me, Melvin (Smith), David Turner, who I worked with at Alabama, and Pat Washington, we coached against each other when he was at Tennessee. And I've been knowing Woody McCorvey for awhile. And I've gotten to know Reed (Stringer) since I've been here. And I knew J.B. (Grimes) through a mutual friend that I worked with at Alabama. He's like a brother to me. I knew Rockey (Felker) also. And I have a head coach that is a Christian brother of mine. I visited his brother's church when I was in Tuscaloosa.

"It was like I was welcomed into a ready-made family."

Talk about the safety position overall.
"Coach Smith has already done a great job with them. I'm just blessed that he has passed them over to me and that we will coach the secondary together. He has the corners and I have the safeties. It's a blessing to work with a guy with his knowledge and also to be able to work with Ellis Johnson and David Turner.

"Based on what I saw in the spring, the safeties play with aggression and understand the game. They do things that I like and all I have to do is add to it. What I'm trying to do is put my flavor to it. I call it alignment, assignment and responsibility. If they can tell me those three things quickly, then I know they know what is going on.

"I'm trying to focus on the little things. A lot of people see a picture, but a lot of times they don't take the time to see what makes up the picture. If you take a corner out, the picture is not complete. Everybody has a piece of the puzzle and the safeties have to make sure their pieces fit the scheme, the picture. And that's what my job is."

What are your thoughts about your individual players?
"Derek Pegues has a lot of talent and I like the way he plays. I like the way he runs to the ball and his athleticism. He's a focused kid. I just have to keep him focused. He is the kind of guy who can make people around him better. He has that IT. Some people you can see that have IT. It's up to me to bring that IT out all the time. He's going to be a joy to coach and teach."

Pegues was moved to safety this past spring. Did he pick it up quickly or did it take some time for him to understand it?
"He understood it, but that credit goes to Coach Smith. He taught the kid to play corner, but he also taught him the system. When you focus on the system, you can move people around. And with his athleticism and leadership qualities, it was a good fit for him to go to safety. And he made the transition well.

"I like the way he plays. He plays fast. Fitzhugh, out of all the safeties, he and (De'Mon) Glanton are probably the two biggest hitters. The main thing is you can be a big hitter and miss. I want my safeties to be a big hitter and don't miss. You need to know when to hit and when to tackle. Another thing that I want to do is make sure he believes in what he sees and then go get it. That pertains to all of my guys - believe in what you see and then attack. If you second guess yourself, you might be a 4.3 (speed) guy, but you play a 4.6. But, if you play a 4.6 and trust your eyes, you play a 4.5.

"Demario Bobo is an athletic kid who can play in space. What I mean by that is he can play in the slot. I like what I see in Bobo. He understands the game. He can run and hit. He just needs to get his flavor back, but I think he got that back in the spring. He does need to trust what he sees and not think about it. He will help us.

"When I talk about these main four guys, I can play them anywhere. I feel like I have four guys that I can put in any time during the game. So, whoever has the hot hand, he is the guy that we will play. I am blessed that I have some guys that can go in there and play.

"De'Mon Glanton is a guy that is sharp. I like him. All of them understand the system, but there is something about him. I noticed how attentive he is. He doesn't say a lot, but he gets it done. Those kind of guys I love. It's not so much what they say, but it's how they walk the walk. He can play in space and he can play both positions. But all four of the guys can play both. So, they complement each other."

Which of your guys are free safeties and which are strong?
"Pegues and Bobo are my free and Glanton and Fitzhugh are my strong. But, really, they play both, so they are safeties. I can play them anywhere."

A couple others are Anthony Summers and Jarvis Kyles.
"Summers is a really pretty player. What I mean by that is he passes the eye test. He is a tall, big safety. I just need to continue to teach him, train him. The other players have experience. They've played in games and been under the lights. Once he gets that he will be there, too. Right now, he just thinks too much. But I understand youth. I like what I see, though. Now, it's my job to get it out of him.

"Kyles is a role player. He's a hard worker who understands the system. I've just got to play to his strengths, just like I have to do with Summers."

Sometimes, when I watch Kyles in practice he appears to be so intense. Would you consider him to be an intense player?
"He's a focused kid. He's making sure he knows what's going on. He's taking care of his responsibility."

You mentioned trusting your eyes. How do you teach these kids, when they first come in, to trust their eyes?
"Number one, you put them through drills. How they react in a particular drill will tell you if they believe what they see. Number two, you question them. You ask them what they see during a drill or play. You don't want them to question themselves. I don't want to hear them say I thought I saw this. You want them to say this is what I see. There is no in-between. Get them out of the gray area. If it's a pass, it's a pass. If it's a run, it's a run. In other words, once you see it, you believe it."

Have you even been in a situation where you have shared the secondary with another coach like you are doing here?
"This is my first time. Coming in, when Coach Croom talked to me about being a part of the staff and working with Melvin in the secondary, I jumped at it. It allows me to focus on the safeties and Melvin on the corners. And the communication is good between Melvin and me. We are on the same page."

You talked about Coach Johnson being like a big brother to you. How did that come about?
"I started my coaching career with him. He blessed me in 1983 with a coaching job. He can't get rid of me now (laugh). I worked with him one year when I initially got started in coaching at Gardner-Webb. He pointed to me then, and he's still pointing to me today. I also worked with him two years at Clemson. He was the reason I got the job at Clemson because he brought my name up to Tommy West. And when he went back to Alabama with Mike Dubose, an opportunity came up and he brought my name up again and I interviewed. And the Lord blessed me there. And when an opportunity came up here, he brought my name up to Coach Croom and the Lord blessed me to be able to come here and work with Coach Croom and the guys. He's not only a mentor, but he's also my big brother. I don't have family here, but he and his family are my family. His baby boy is named after me. He's my godson. That is a special honor. And he and his wife also blessed me by selecting me to be the best man in their wedding. I love his family. They are like my family."

You are referred to as Coach Cheese. How did you get the nickname Cheese?
"It's been with me since high school. I have to admit that I like cheese. I must have eaten a lot of cheese one day and my friends started calling me cheese. At first I didn't like the name, but I had to learn to like it because the more they saw that I disliked it, the more they said it. By the time that I learned to ignore it, it just stuck with me. Now, I enjoy it.

"I look at it like this. I'm a vessel that the Lord uses. If I can bless someone with a smile or a kind word, and as long as I stay humble, then that's what I'm going to try to do. So, instead of being so formal by calling me Coach Harbison, sometimes they can call me Coach Cheese. That's like allowing them to feel more comfortable with me."

Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by website, the source for Mississippi State sports on the sports network. You can contact him by email at

Gene's Page Top Stories