After three years at USD, Jim Harbaugh recently accepted a job as head coach at Stanford. USD has hired University of Kentucky assistant coach Ron Caragher to lead the football team next season.
The football players sat anxiously as they assembled on a mid-November Sunday morning in the auditorium of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice. They awaited the Division I-AA selection committee’s bracket announcement on an ESPN telecast.
The Toreros believed they were worthy of an at-large berth in the 16-team bracket, although it was unprecedented for a non-scholarship program such as USD to be selected in a playoff system designed for schools that award as many as 63 scholarships.
USD’s case included a No. 14 ranking in the nation among all Division I-AA schools at that point in the season. The Toreros had posted a school record of 10-0 with 18 straight wins and back-to-back Pioneer Football League titles.
They even had a marquee attraction with a candidate for the Walter Payton Award — Division I-AA’s Heisman Trophy equivalent — in junior quarterback Josh Johnson.
“No question, the selection committee felt our presence,” said Jim Harbaugh, USD’s third-year head coach. “You have to understand that for the committee to put us into the playoffs, it would have been unprecedented. I can guarantee you we were on the board.”
But as the final two schools flashed on the big screen without USD appearing, something was missing among the players.
A groan. Nobody expressed exasperation at being bypassed.
“We knew whatever happened, this season was a positive for USD football,” said senior Chase McBride.
After all, unlike most teams in NCAA sports that are overlooked by a selection committee, USD could still look forward to playing two more games on their 2006 schedule. Harbaugh and athletic director Ky Snyder scheduled rewards beyond the PFL regular season title.
The first reward was a chance to measure themselves against a scholarship school, UC Davis. The Aggies were available for a game since they were ineligible for the 2006 Division I-AA playoffs while in the final year of transition from Division II.
Although USD lost to UC Davis 37-27, the Toreros led 18-13 at halftime, and Johnson put up another 300-yard passing performance. The second reward was the Gridiron Classic, a bowl game that matched the PFL champion against the Northeast Conference champion. Originally scheduled for Nov. 18, both conferences agreed to move the game to Dec. 2 once USD’s playoff chances appeared realistic.
As PFL Champion, the Toreros placed 16 players on the All-PFL team. The roll call included Johnson as offensive player of the year, junior defensive end Erik Bakhtiari as co-defensive player of the year and defensive back Gabe Derricks as the freshman of the year.
Playing the Gridiron Classic allowed the PFL champions to defend their storied 2005 national title among mid-major (non-scholarship) schools and No. 1 ranking throughout the 2006 season.
USD’s early December 27-7 win over Monmouth University, the NEC champion ranked No. 2 among mid-major schools, led to the Toreros clinching a second straight national title with an 11-1 record.
“We knew this was a special group when we came here as freshmen,” said All-PFL junior center Jordan Paopao. “We started talking about rising to the level of making the playoffs.”
They did more than talk about it. They came so close to making the playoffs, they didn’t need to groan when their name wasn’t called.
“I’m getting a degree from a good school and playing for a great football coaching staff,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to take a chance on going someplace else. I’m preparing for life and football with great experiences. I have everything I need here.”