Hernández: Jim Harbaugh appears to have genuine connection with Spanos family

Chargers owner Dean Spanos makes opening remarks during the introductory press conference for Chargers coach Jim Harbaugh.

More often than not, the Spanos family is described in unflattering terms.



Without vision.

At the news conference introducing him as the Chargers’ new coach, Jim Harbaugh offered an entirely different portrayal of the family that owns the team.

Harbaugh spoke of owner Dean Spanos’ hunger for victory.

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“You’re about it,” Harbaugh said. “You’re a grinder. You’re one of the first in the building — I’ve been watching — and one of the last to leave.”

Harbaugh told a story about a conversation he had early in his coaching career with Dean’s son, John, who is now the president of football operations. John Spanos approached Harbaugh and complimented him on how he ran his practice.

“That was really only the second time that a professional coach, owner or general manager recognized I might be pretty good,” Harbaugh said.

The first was the late Raiders owner Al Davis.

“From that moment, I knew you could recognize talent,” Harbaugh said to John. “This was like a young Al Davis to me. So cool.”

Chargers president of business operations John Spanos speaks during the introductory news conference for coach Jim Harbaugh.
Chargers president of business operations John Spanos speaks during the introductory news conference for coach Jim Harbaugh. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Almost every coach or general manager butters up the people who are signing his paychecks. But this was more than that.

Before educating Justin Herbert on the finer points of quarterbacking, Harbaugh sounded as if he was coaching up the owners to be, well, better owners.

Their relationship dates to Harbaugh’s playing days with the Chargers in 1999 and 2000.

Harbaugh, who has won at every one of his coaching stops, didn’t draw any distinctions between him and the Spanoses, who have never won. In fact, Harbaugh went out of his way to explain how similar they were.

“I believe Dean, the Spanos family and myself share an important asset, which is [being] relentless,” Harbaugh said.

Harbaugh knows that to win with the Chargers, his owners will have to keep their checkbooks open. The team has already invested $16 million a year in Harbaugh, according to Pro Football Talk, but will have to spend millions more for him to have the caliber of coaching staff and analytics department he envisions.

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Dean Spanos sounded as if he was on board.

“I want you to know that my family, myself and the entire Chargers organization are 100% behind you and will do everything in our power to provide you with whatever support and tools you need to be successful,” he said.

Then again, didn’t Frank McCourt make similar remarks when he hired Joe Torre to manage the Dodgers?

Harbaugh was momentarily flummoxed when asked if his interview process consisted of him asking the Chargers about the resources that would be made available to football operations and what he was told that made him confident he could reach his stated goal of winning multiple Super Bowls.

“These were conversations, just football talk, football dialogue,” Harbaugh said. “It was great. It was flowing so much I feel like I was finishing some of their sentences, they were finishing some of my sentences. The resources? We’re about to go, after the press conference, to the new facility. The proof’s in the pudding.”

The reference was to the Chargers’ new practice facility in El Segundo, which should be open in time for training camp.

In defense of the Spanoses, they have behaved more like big-market owners since they relocated the Chargers to Los Angeles. In addition to spending $270 million on the practice facility, they have fired their last two coaches before their contracts expired.

“Like Dean said, I was hungry to win, he’s starving to win, let’s go. I have no doubt it’s all about winning and winning the right way and doing everything for this organization to apex.

Jim Harbaugh watches from the seats as the Spanos family introduces the new Chargers coach.
Jim Harbaugh watches from the seats as the Spanos family introduces the new Chargers coach. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“I have a pretty good sense of the sincerity. They’re sincere people. I take them at their word. And everything since has been, like I said, we’re working, we’re working toward it. I feel good about it.”

The Spanoses do too.

Dean Spanos smiled when talking about the messages he’s received from fans.

“I’m getting emails and texts and cards — and nice ones!” he said. “I mean, they’re very nice, you know. That’s exciting. I’m really happy for the fans, No. 1.”

Spanos said the hiring of Harbaugh wasn’t influenced by a desire to change the narrative about his family’s frugality.

“I don’t pay any attention to that,” he said. “You guys know what we’ve done, what we spend on players, this new facility, I don’t know where that comes from and I don’t really pay a lot of attention to it. I made what I think was the best decision for this organization and the Chargers in hiring Jim. The money had nothing to do with it.”

Asked if Harbaugh’s decision to join the Chargers validated the way his family has run the team or perhaps even changed how the family views itself, Spanos replied, “I think that we both have a great deal of respect for each other. He has a great deal of respect for our family. I think he knows a lot about our family, and not just in the last two weeks but from before. Yeah, surely, it makes you feel good. It was a two-way thing. I think we both felt great about each other.”

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When explaining how Harbaugh could change the Chargers’ culture, John Spanos shared a story about his father.

Near the end of the team’s first interview with Harbaugh, Dean said, “You know, Coach, you’ve got me so fired up right now I’m going to have to go get a workout in when this interview’s over.”

“I’ve yet to confirm if that workout actually happened or not,” John said, “but what I promise you, given the look in my dad’s eyes, if he did, he attacked it with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.”

Dean said the workout happened.

“You can’t get excited talking to him,” Dean said of Harbaugh, “you got no chance to be excited. He’s incredible.”

So Harbaugh persuaded the owner to buy in. His challenge now will be to get him to follow through.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.