November 16, 2009
Here's a new one for Pete Carroll, a guy whose school last year sold t-shirts touting USC's 69-0 victory over helpless bottom dweller Washington State but was reduced to Saturday to charging the other team with running up the score after Stanford had the gall to go for two with a 48-21 lead and the boulder rolling full speed downhill against the Trojans:
When Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll met at midfield after Stanford completed its 55-21 defenestration of USC here Saturday, their conversation was brief, pointed and seemingly unsatisfying.
"What's your deal? What's your deal?" Carroll said, according to two sources near enough to hear.
"What's your deal?" Harbaugh retorted, and that was that.
See, those NFL guys are just so sophisticated, you know?
The funhouse mirror on the field suits Harbaugh's burgeoning status as the new Carroll -- if not in record (yet, anyway, and at Stanford, quite likely never in terms of longevity) then at least in style: Besides beating Carroll's blue-chip charges twice in as many tries on their home field, Harbaugh may be the only in the Pac-10 or possibly in the entire country who can match Carroll blow for blow in over-the-top, rah-rah enthusiasm*, and increasingly for annual rumors that NFL teams are angling for his services.
It's no coincidence that "the timing was not great" for Stanford to extend Harbaugh's contract back in February, despite obvious leaps forward on the field in his first two seasons, but off back-to-back blowouts of league heavies Oregon and USC, will probably have an extension finalized by the end of the week. A loss by the front-running Ducks in either of their last two games against Arizona and Oregon State could throw the Cardinal into a a wild, four-way mix for the Pac-10 championship if they take care of business Saturday against California.
That may not be such a wild revelation these days, given Stanford's nearly straight-up trajectory over the last three seasons, but it certainly would have been if you'd predicted it when Harbaugh was snatched from obscurity at I-AA San Diego to revamp the worst BCS conference team in the country. Walt Harris' last team in Palo Alto finished 1-11, was outscored by nearly three touchdowns per game and finished dead last in the Pac-10 in almost every major category, scraping bottom nationally (118th out of 119 teams) in both total and scoring offense. Harbaugh wasn't just young and inexperienced -- at 43, he was only five years removed from the end of his NFL career and had no Division I-A coaching experience in any capacity -- but also that he seemed to eager to stick his foot in his mouth, alternately calling out Carroll for his alleged wandering eye and taking shots at his alma mater for trumping up its academic reputation before he'd coaching a game with the Cardinal.
So it's hard to blame anyone watching at the time in retrospect for failing to predict what's beginning to look like the single most impressive turnaround of the last five years this side of Nick Saban:
Now comes the next phase of that arc: With the goodwill of a pair of eye-opening thumpings in their pocket the last two weeks and the full attention of hard-to-reach pollsters, pundits and blogs like this one, can Harbaugh keep his overachievers on track for a run at the top 10 and a possible insurgent BCS berth by plowing Cal and Notre Dame in the same fashion to close the regular season? If not it certainly won't be for lack of exposure to those games, which have the potential to propel hulking tailback Toby Gerhart to the top of the Heisman charts and redshirt freshman quarterback Andrew Luck into the pipeline of hyped, star passers over the rest of his career, as well as the team to heights it hasn't reached in decades -- or to cut Stanford back down to size after a brief bit of pique against a couple of conference bullies.
As quickly as Harbaugh and Co. have discovered the college football world at their feet, it can be gone just as suddenly with flops against the Bears and Irish, against whom Harbaugh's first two teams were 1-3. If this operation has the kind of staying power the last two weeks have suggested, sustaining the tide when everyone expects it -- including opponents who suddenly find themselves underdogs to a former doormat -- may be the toughest phase of the process.
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* Though Carroll's former assistant, Steve Sarkisian, may take the enthusiasm crown yet at Washington. Hat tip: Get the Picture.