Harbaugh’s drive took detour on way to 49ers
The University of San Diego sits on 180 acres overlooking a canyon. The campus is dominated by 16th century Spanish Renaissance architecture. It delivers an elite, Catholic education. It’s near a vibrant downtown and stunning beaches. Plus, don’t forget, there’s all that glorious sunshine.
So Ky Snyder, USD’s athletic director, wasn’t surprised in January 2004 when a “really good pool of candidates” sought the school’s head football coaching job.
Capacity of Torero Stadium was less than 5,000 at the time, the team competed in Division I-AA and there were no football scholarships, but this was still San Diego.
Then Snyder received word from Monsignor Dan Dillabough, a campus leader who worked with the San Diego Chargers, that Jim Harbaugh wanted the job.
Everyone in football knew Harbaugh, the longtime NFL quarterback then in his second season as an Oakland Raiders assistant, was destined to be a head coach.
He had the name – he’d finished third in the Heisman voting as a senior at Michigan and played 15 seasons in the NFL. He had the pedigree – he’d played for Mike Ditka and Bo Schembechler, worked for Al Davis, and his father Jack was a respected college coach. He was so determined to coach, during his last seven years as an NFL player he moonlighted as a volunteer assistant (mainly scouting and recruiting) for his dad, then the head coach at Western Kentucky.
No one doubted he had the drive, acumen and charisma to pick his spot, either at a big-time college or in the NFL.
It seemed predestined. All he needed was a little more experience.
So why, with such a clear career path to the top in front of him, would Jim Harbaugh make the unorthodox move of becoming the head coach at this little academics-first, non-scholarship program set to open the season against Azusa Pacific?
“That’s exactly what I asked him,” Snyder said. “Why do you want to take a step back?” Harbaugh saw it differently, which isn’t unusual. He sees a lot of things differently.
It goes a long way in explaining how he’s become the hottest coach in the NFL overnight, taking the San Francisco 49ers from 6-10 underachievers in 2010 to hosting the New York Giants in Sunday’s NFC championship game.
Harbaugh wanted to be a head coach, not an assistant. He’s always been hardheaded, and being anything less than the boss wasn’t to his liking – he famously clashed with Ditka by calling an ill-advised audible.
USD was a head coaching job. That was enough for him. He didn’t worry that the easiest road to college success is to recruit superior talent, something almost impossible at a selective, expensive school with no scholarships.
Jim Harbaugh was unequivocally convinced that he’d win – then, now, and forever.
He was, after all, the guy who while playing at Michigan, boldly predicted a victory over Ohio State even though he assumed Schembechler would kill him for it (Michigan won, Harbaugh lived).
He was the guy who seemed to will his way to a better NFL career than his ability said was possible (dubbed “Captain Comeback” for his inspiring late-game play).
He was the guy who later would take over at Stanford and immediately pick a fight with league powerhouse Southern California and coach Pete Carroll (“What’s your deal?” Carroll asked in 2009 after the Cardinal went for two late in a stunning 55-21 upset).
He was the guy who would take over the reeling 49ers and told his team they were going to start winning immediately by asking: “Who’s got it better than us?” It was a line Jim stole from his father, who used it to motivate the family when assistant-coaching jobs required frequent moves.
“He said that here, also,” Snyder said. “He’d say it to the players all the time, ‘Does anybody have it better than us?’ ”
To which a bunch of guys paying their own way to play in front of a couple thousand fans (at best) might have answered, “Um, how about USC or UCLA?”
Instead they began to believe their new coach was correct. At least the ones that didn’t quit because he ran the small college team like it was in the NFC West. Those who stayed won. Harbaugh was at USD for three seasons, and he finished on a 27-2 streak. Then he was off to Stanford, which in four seasons he took the Cardinal from last place to 12-1 Orange Bowl champions. Then the Niners called.
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The rest is history. It’s his history though that says it all.
It’s one thing to talk about confidence in your system, trust in your ability, faith in your way of coaching the game. It’s another to risk your entire career by trying to implement it with essentially a team of walk-ons.
There’s nothing wrong with humble roots, but since when has royalty chose them?
“Jim is very strategic in everything he does,” Snyder said. “He definitely had a game plan to put a system in and make it work. He was going to build himself here and then take the next step. He was always focused on one day winning a Super Bowl.”
Snyder recalls sitting down to interview Harbaugh and being inundated with books, various blue prints on how everything, and Snyder means everything, would be run.
“He came in with a book on how to deal with assistant coaches, a book on how to recruit, a book on how to deal with student-athletes, a book on implementing his game plans.”
The hiring was a foregone conclusion by that point.
“I’d go over and watch his practices sometimes,” Snyder, who played football at San Diego State, continued. “He’d have the entire practice down to the minute. A first-year head coach with everything planned down to the minute. It was fun to watch because of the energy he’d bring.
“Sometimes he’d start practice with the two-minute drill because that’s a high-energy drill and he wanted to get out of the chute quickly.”
Snyder thought back to the interview that occurred just eight years ago.
“I’ve always been convinced he was going to win a Super Bowl,” Snyder said. “Or, certainly, he’s going to die trying.”
Time flies. It was just six seasons ago the coach who may win this Super Bowl was firing up his team before a game against Dayton that would determine the Pioneer League championship. To Harbaugh, nothing was bigger in the world.
“Jim is a motivator,” Snyder said. “His greatest asset is his ability to elevate everybody’s game. That night he was saying, ‘This is what we’ve trained for. This is what you’ve prepared for.
“‘You are going to win.’”
San Diego 56, Dayton 14.
He might as well give the same speech this weekend.
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