Ready for Some Football
How do you turn around a program with six straight losing seasons? Jim Harbaugh's answer: Bring the love.
Photo: Kelly Nicolaisen
By Roy S. Johnson
Everbody has a Jim Harbaugh story. Everyone who has known him, played football with him or for him, or maybe just crossed paths with the Cardinal's second-year head football coach, has a Jim Harbaugh story.
Even Jim Harbaugh has a Jim Harbaugh story:
“I lived for recess. I lived for going outside and playing after school. Riding to school I used to pretend it was the team bus and when we were getting off the bus we were going to the game. I remember crying when I was 9 years old when my Little League game got rained out. It just hurt so much, you know?”
Wes Doyle, who played wide receiver for three years at the University of San Diego when Harbaugh was head coach there, has a Jim Harbaugh story: “Coach challenged his fastest players to race him up the steep hill the team used for conditioning. He wanted to do it because he was just so dang competitive. I can't tell you he won, but he ran that hill and he ran it as many times as us.”
During the final week of the Cardinal's spring practice this past April, the 44-year-old former NFL quarterback (he spent most of his 15 pro seasons with the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts) could be seen tucked behind senior center Alex Fletcher in the middle of a drill, barking signals as if he were back at Soldier Field. The annual spring game was the following day, and Harbaugh couldn't resist an opportunity to show his players just how it's done. “Coach wants to lead by example,” Doyle says. “He never wanted to get to a place where the [players] were being competitive and he wasn't.”
Competitive. There's a word not often associated with Stanford football in recent times. It has been seven years since the Cardinal played in a bowl game (Seattle Bowl), and more than a decade since it won one (Sun Bowl, 1996). Mediocrity does not often find comfort on the Farm, in the classroom or on the playing field. Fourteen consecutive Directors' Cups, symbolic of the nation's most successful collegiate athletic program, affirm the University's status as a haven for excellence in sports—save for the stain the football team had become under two earnest yet mismatched head coaches since Tyrone Willingham's departure in 2001. Over five ugly seasons—2002-2006—Stanford won just 16 times in 56 games and lost five straight to Cal.
A few days before the 2006 Big Game—near the welcomed end to a 1-11 season under head coach Walt Harris—several of the team's seniors walked into athletics director Bob Bowlsby's office and announced that they and their teammates were miserable. “These were our leaders saying they were not having fun, not enjoying themselves and not getting better,” Bowlsby recalls. “When your leaders come to you the week before the Cal game and say these things, you have to listen.” Two days after losing to Cal, Harris was fired.
That December, the ebullient Harbaugh, whose only head coaching experience had been at Division I-AA University of San Diego, was named the 31st head coach in Stanford football history.
One of his first challenges was to contend with a group of players still suffering from the trauma of a season former Cardinal wide receiver Evan Moore describes as “brutal.” Players were well aware of Harbaugh's credentials as a former pro, and his rep as a fiery, rah-rah coach. But these young men had endured serial humiliation throughout 2006. Rah-rah? Please.
Most years, enthusiasm for spring practice waned quickly, says Moore, '07, MA '07, whom Harbaugh had coaxed into returning for his final year of eligibility. But something changed that spring, which is the root of Moore's own Jim Harbaugh story:
“Usually, at around the third practice, everyone's like, 'Oh, man, we've got 12 more of these.' But coach Harbaugh found a way to bring excitement and energy to something no one was looking forward to at all. He actually made us excited to be out there, really excited to be out there. He made us believe we could improve, and that was pretty impressive when you consider the way things were going.”
Fast-forward to this past April, Harbaugh's second at Stanford. Spring football doesn't yet inspire the kind of unbridled zeal it does on campuses like Auburn, Texas, Georgia, Oklahoma and Alabama—“football schools.” Yet after a 4-8 season of highs (the shocking 24-23 upset of USC, the 20-13 win over Cal) and lows (pick any of the eight defeats), there was a palpable energy, confidence and a new sense of anticipation between the halls of the Arrillaga Family Sports Center where the football offices reside and at the unassuming practice fields near the Avery Aquatics Center. It almost seemed as if players wanted to practice.
It's foolhardy to assess any coach after just one season, especially a football coach taking over a team long stuck in the muck. (“It's harder to turn a battleship than a speed boat,” says Bowlsby.) Yet it's fair to say progress was made in Year One of the Harbaugh Era— even if you discount the USC shocker, or at least acknowledge that perhaps the greatest upset in college football history was tempered by five defeats in the next six games. “The kids are having fun again,” Bowlsby says. “You see it in practice, in the way they relate to the challenges he presents. And you see progress on the practice field before you see it in the games. You see it in the games before you see it on the scoreboard, and on the scoreboard before you see it in the won-loss column. I had hoped we'd win four or five games, and would not have expected USC and Cal to be two of the four.”
In Harbaugh, Bowlsby hired a man who embodies many of the intangibles associated with winning, so familiar they're just this side of being clichés. In short, he hired a football guy. Some might find the term demeaning, but Harbaugh, the son of a coach (his father, Jack, coached two years at Stanford) will tell you straight up that he's not a complicated man (“I haven't changed much in 20 years,” he says). And he views the “football guy” label as a high compliment.
“It's someone who loves football,” he says one spring afternoon, in a conference room near his office. “It's got to be genuine, a genuine love for it, that passion for it.” A football guy loves every detail, moment and challenge of the sport, whether he's awaiting the snap of the ball or sitting in a coaches meeting dissecting grainy video of a potential recruit. A football guy loves practice. “I don't think there is any more enjoyable time for him than when practice starts,” says Dave Adolph, a former Kansas City Chiefs coach and one of Harbaugh's mentors.
That love—the word is not used lightly here—is Harbaugh's most vital asset. “You've got to have passion for what you do,” he says. “You have to love what you do truly, because if you don't love it, you'll end up hating it, and the people who do love it, they're going to eventually outwork you.”
The unspoken message, of course, is that no one will outwork him. “I'd heard two things about him,” says Bowlsby. “That he brings a lot of energy and that he makes everyone around him better. I have found both to be true.”
At Stanford, Harbaugh is looking to replicate the transformation he achieved at San Diego. As with the Cardinal, he inherited a team that won only sparsely. He went 7-4 in his inaugural season with the Toreros, and followed with successive 11-1 seasons, each culminating with a mid-major national title. Two keys to the turnaround: Implementing a more rigorous off-season conditioning program and, maybe more important, initiating an attitude transplant. “Expect to win,” Doyle explains. “He said it with almost numbing repetition until it became the mentality of the team. Before, it wasn't like that at all. To him a winning season meant every dang game.”
Moore says Harbaugh's higher bar was clear even before the new coach had a chance to spend much time with his team. In March 2007, Harbaugh told reporters he believed USC coach Pete Carroll would stay only one more season at the school. “That's what I've heard,” he said at the time. “I heard it inside the staff.” The remark irked Carroll, who denied the claim; and commentators wondered out loud whether the simmering blood might cause the Trojans, who were widely favored to win the national title, to demolish Stanford when the teams met later that year.
This was not the first fuse Harbaugh had lit. The year before, while still at San Diego, he claimed his team, a patsy when he arrived, was on par with Division I-AA's Top 25 schools. “I believe we beat most of them,” he says now matter-of-factly.
Harbaugh's initial comments about Carroll didn't catch the attention of Stanford players as much as did his reaction to being asked by reporters if he feared USC might mete out some beat-down revenge on his team. “His response was, 'No one scares us,'” Moore recalls. (Harbaugh's actual quote was “We bow to no program here at Stanford University,” a statement later paraphrased on fraternity banners and a T-shirt that showed up around campus.) “A lot of guys were surprised, but what was he supposed to say? He believed in the team he was coaching, and when the USC game came around everyone reflected on what he had said. We thought, if Coach believes in us that much, we have to believe in ourselves even more.”
The Cardinal's last-minute victory in Pasadena last October—behind a sophomore quarterback, Tavita Pritchard, starting his first college game—stunned the entire sports world. It also spawned another T-shirt: “Biggest. Upset. Ever.” How did it happen? Moore has a simple explanation, and offers an honest context: “It was a bunch of guys all playing to their capability,” he says. “We had not always done that at Stanford.”
It takes more than a Knute Rockne attitude to win—especially for Stanford, which won't ever possess the depth of talent other Pac-10 schools enjoy. Sound (and confident) minds must be buoyed by sound bodies. Harbaugh instituted at Stanford the same relentless regimen he employed at San Diego, and he brought along strength and conditioning coach Shannon Turley, who worked for Harbaugh at USD. Moore says the new strategy isn't particularly revolutionary. But it was effective, almost from the start. “I don't know if we so much worked harder, but we worked smarter,” he says. “We did things aimed at making us better football players. We didn't just run as much as possible and see who could puke first. We did things that addressed the deficiencies of each player. It was football specific. Running a bunch of gassers isn't necessarily going to make you a better football player.”
Harbaugh's staff includes other coaches who worked under him at San Diego: offensive coordinator David Shaw, tight ends coach Tim Drevno, and Lance Anderson, who coaches the defensive tackles and coordinates recruiting. None of them may match their boss's enthusiasm (few mortals could) but they are true messengers of the Gospel According to Harbaugh: we bow to no one.
“You're only as good as the coaches around you,” says Johnnie Morton, who was an assistant with the Oakland Raiders with Harbaugh in 2002 and 2003 and is now wide receivers coach and passing-game coordinator at USC. “And Jim has a keen eye for surrounding himself with good people.”
“Any relationship starts with trust,” Harbaugh says. “It's synonymous with faith in those around you, faith in yourself, without any evidence. [Last season, the players] trusted, they believed. To take it further now, we need to be more athletic. We need to be a tougher football team. We need to be a better coached team.”
Sarah Feuerborn became Sarah Harbaugh this past January. Naturally, she has a Jim Harbaugh story:
“In January 2006, I was living in Las Vegas and I had gone for takeout at P.F. Chang's. He followed me out to the parking lot. It was a little bit scary at first. He said, 'Excuse me, Miss.' He said he'd like to meet me. I was a bit taken aback, but I told him my name and we talked in the parking lot five minutes. He asked if maybe we could go to dinner. I was a little reluctant. I knew he was from out of town. But I gave him my business card. That night he called nine times, though I didn't get any of the calls. I was going to just say no because I didn't want to get into an out-of-town-relationship, so I called him the next day when I knew he was at practice, hoping to get voicemail. He ended up answering and talked me into going to dinner. That night he never once mentioned his background. He just told me he was a coach. On our second date, my brother called and he asked me what [my date's] name was. When I told him 'Harbaugh,' he said, 'Holy crap, he used to play for the Chicago Bears!' Two dates in, and Jim had not even mentioned his playing career. For most people, that would be the first thing out of their mouth. To this day, every great thing I've learned about him I've learned from someone else.”
Harbaugh credits “50 percent” of who he is to his father, whom he still talks with every day. “He's not a household name like Woody Hayes or Bear Bryant, but he's one of the best coaches that ever coached college football. I just love him. We both have this caring, sensitive side. It's a weird thing. We're like ultimate competitors, but we're sensitive.”
Jack Harbaugh was an assistant under legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler, and coached for 41 seasons in all. At Western Kentucky, where he coached for his final 19 seasons, Harbaugh led the Hilltoppers to the 2002 Division I-AA national title. (Jim worked there for several seasons as a volunteer assistant.)
Between the influences of Jack and Schembechler, Harbaugh's own mettle was formed. “I always sound like I took notes,” he says. “Their wills are so strong that it's like they put you into those big furnaces and forge and twist the steel and it comes out like their DNA got wrapped around you.”
Passion and pedigree alone will not help Harbaugh overcome perhaps the primary obstacle to success at Stanford: the ability to recruit more talented players. The University's high academic standards diminish the pool of eligible athletes—only about 400 of the approximately 3,500 young men nationwide who sign Division I letters of intent each year stand any chance of getting into Stanford, says Bowlsby. “With 24 positions to fill, there will be some years when you just may not have, say, a top-tier defensive lineman that meets the academic profile.”
Harbaugh has invested more staff and technology into recruiting. His team is identifying potential recruits as high school sophomores, tracking their progress both athletically and academically and encouraging them to take the kind of advanced placement courses that Stanford admissions officers favor. “There's more brainpower now to identify, evaluate and recruit the best of the best in the nation,” he says. “We're not looking for a smart kid who happens to be a football player, but the BCS-caliber talent packed inside a guy who happens to be smart.”
Another key part of Harbaugh's strategy was to develop a better relationship with admission dean Richard Shaw and his team to gain better insight into exactly what it takes for a potential student-athlete to qualify. “We're trying to understand the criteria because we want to maximize our man-hours,” Harbaugh says. “If we're recruiting kids who don't have a chance to get in, we're wasting our time and Admission's time. Rick has a sports background and really gets it. He goes to games. [Assistant dean of admission] Kiyoe Hashimoto has gotten much more football savvy. Getting to know them and letting them get to know us, there's a trust building there.
“I have no desire to change the standard,” he says. “I'm very comfortable and happy we have the highest standard in the country. We're screaming that from the rooftops. We'll never make an attempt to try to lower our standards. The professors here aren't looking for the 15th guy in their classroom, or the fourth-stringer. They don't want to slow their classes down. We're not looking to bring in the 15th guy on the football team, either. That's why we're spending more time really recruiting, in advance, to be able to talk to counselors, teachers, coaches and families, to get to know the whole person you're bringing into Stanford.
“We've got to change the mindset that great athletes can just kind of float through school. They're doing themselves a disservice. It's been that way too long when the very good athlete just gets kind of pushed along, pushed along, pushed along,” he says.
Harbaugh considers himself one of those athletes who were not afforded the full academic offerings while playing at Michigan. Last summer he told the San Francisco Chronicle “the [Michigan] athletic department has ways to get borderline guys in and, when they're in, they steer them to courses in sports communications. They're adulated when they're playing, but when they get out, the people who adulated them won't hire them.” He wanted to major in history, Harbaugh told the Chronicle, but as a freshman was dissuaded from doing so because it was too demanding.
Harbaugh was criticized for slamming his alma mater. “It's not the first time,” he says. A year later he doesn't back away from the statements but tries to cast them in context. “I have great feelings for Michigan, tremendous feelings, the same feeling [Cardinal alums have] about Stanford. What I don't like is that there is a bias in a lot of people who believe that somehow GPA and the 40-yard dash have some sort of inverse correlation—that you can't be a scholar and a great athlete. It's silly to think that.”
For all of his fire, passion and throwback bravado, Harbaugh has stumbled, nearly to the detriment of his career. Early one Sunday morning in October 2005, he ran a stop sign, was stopped, arrested and charged with suspicion of drunken driving. He later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and was sentenced to three years probation and given a $1,300 fine. During an interview with Stanford in April, Harbaugh mentioned the DUI before being asked about it. “I've brought that up with my players a few times,” he said. “I think that's made me a better counselor than I was before. The way I coached guys before that happened it was like, 'Why can't you get it?' 'Why can't you get it right?' 'You did this wrong, now fix it!' I was so much more of a perfectionist, to a fault. But I gained some understanding. In many ways it made me a better person, a better coach, a better counselor.”
But always the competitor. If the defensive unit has the better day in practice, Harbaugh will stew all night and ensure that it doesn't happen again by playing quarterback with the offense. And after practice he's not above challenging his players on the basketball court. “He'd say, 'Give me the damn ball and I'll beat you,'” Adolph says. “He loves competing. He absolutely loves it.”
Roy S. Johnson, '78, is editor-in-chief of Men's Fitness magazine. He also blogs for Yahoo! Sports, appears regularly as a television panelist and is co-author, with pro basketball coach Avery Johnson, of Aspire Higher: Winning on and off the Court with Determination, Discipline and Decisions (HarperCollins).
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