The NFL’s San Francisco 49ers hired Stanford University’s Jim Harbaugh as its new head football coach on Jan. 7, believing they’d found the former USD football coach to be the right person to return the pro franchise back among the league’s elite.
Harbaugh, who left Stanford four days after the Cardinal completed a 12-1 season with a 2011 Orange Bowl victory over Virginia Tech, was nationally praised for taking over a program that was 1-11 in 2006 when he arrived and went 29-21 in his four seasons. The 47-year-old was a hot commodity the past few weeks. His name was reportedly linked to NFL head coach vacancies in Miami, Denver and Carolina along with San Francisco. Harbaugh’s college alma mater, Michigan, was another possibility and Stanford tried to keep him.
Trent Baalke, the 49ers’ general manager, said Harbaugh’s approach to football meant a lot, according to an Associated Press story from the team’s press conference to announce his hiring. “I met this man six or seven years ago at a college all-star game and I fell in love with his energy. This is the start of a new generation … What we have to do is bring back the culture of winning. He’s a guy who can lead the 49ers franchise back to where it rightfully belongs.”
Harbaugh, an ultra-competitive quarterback in a 15-year NFL playing career with five teams, honed his post-playing career skills as an NCAA-certified unpaid assistant coach while still an active NFL player from 1994-2001 at Western Kentucky University where his father, Jack, was head coach.
But it was Harbaugh’s three-year stint as head football coach at the University of San Diego that put him on the fast track to where he is today.
When he was introduced as USD’s head coach in December 2003, USD officials felt they had found the right fit. Harbaugh had a keen understanding of what it took to coach the Toreros, an NCAA Division I-AA non-scholarship football program, and the role athletics had in partnership with a rigorous academic environment.
“Our kids are all here on their own dime,” said Mike Matoso, USD’s senior associate director of athletics. “I think Jim really liked knowing that our players were here because they loved to play and they were willing to go the extra mile to get better. They wanted to feel what it was like to be a winner and they believed in themselves that they could win.”
Harbaugh, calling the chance to be USD’s head coach “a privilege and an honor,” posted a 29-6 record, including back-to-back 11-1 seasons in 2005 and 2006. The team won two Pioneer Football League championships and two I-AA Mid-Major national championships. Perhaps Harbaugh’s greatest impact at USD came when the quarterback he recruited to USD and coached for three years, Josh Johnson, became the first Torero football player selected in the NFL Draft (2008, fifth round, Tampa Bay). Harbaugh left USD to go to Stanford prior to Johnson’s senior season at USD.
Having a member from a major college football conference like the Pac-10 hire Harbaugh, Matoso said, did give USD officials a sense of pride knowing that Stanford thought so highly of Harbaugh’s ability that they gave him a chance.
Several of Harbaugh’s USD players earned All-America, All-PFL player and academic honors and, in addition to Johnson, quarterback Todd Mortensen earned a free-agent contract with the Detroit Lions in 2005. The success Harbaugh had in a short time at USD with players like Johnson, defensive lineman/linebacker Erik Bakhtiari (Cleveland) and wide receiver John Matthews (Jacksonville), gave the program, now under the direction of Ron Caragher since Harbaugh’s departure, increased NFL visibility.
“Having Jim here brought more credibility to the program,” Matoso said. “It was great to have him here to elevate our program. It’s no surprise the job he was able to do at Stanford. His infectious personality and his ability to coach is quite evident. It worked here, it worked at Stanford and it can work (in the NFL).”
— Ryan T. Blystone
Photo courtesy of Brock Scott