Harbaugh makes Stanford tough to beat
Stanford had scored eight touchdowns on USC, part of a 55-21 annihilation inside the Los Angeles Coliseum last November, and now some of the Trojans were bailing for cover, jogging to their locker room without a postgame handshake.
Jim Harbaugh, Stanford’s coach, saw it as the seconds wound down and expressed amazement. The Cardinal had stunned USC two years prior, a 41-point underdog making a statement with an historic upset. This was different. This was a show of force and the retreating Trojans told the story.
“Hey, look at them all running in,” Harbaugh said. “Look at them all running in.”
Moments later Harbaugh met up with then-USC coach Pete Carroll, who, believing Stanford had run up the score, had one question for his counterpart.
“What’s your deal?” Carroll asked.
“What’s your deal?” Harbaugh shot back.
Harbaugh’s deal, then and now, has changed the way Stanford approaches football, or at least in how the outside world views it. Oh, the high academic standards and stated commitment to compliance still exist on the Farm.
What’s fading quickly is any belief that Stanford should concede to any other program in the country. It’s been replaced by an aggressive, physical, take-no-prisoners attitude best represented by its hard-driving coach.
The Cardinal are 4-0 this season, boasting a 198-41 scoring differential and jumping from outside the preseason polls to No. 9. On Saturday they visit No. 4 Oregon in what Harbaugh calls “a monumental football game” – one of the first nationally relevant Stanford games in memory.
Last season Stanford went 8-5, the school’s first winning season since 2001. This year’s team is even better. It went on the road and laid a 35-0 beating on UCLA, which just whipped Texas at Texas. It physically manhandled Notre Dame in a way three Big Ten teams couldn’t. It hung 68 on Wake Forest.
Even more telling than the results, though, is the change in mentality. For decades this was a nice program. Nice kids, nice coaches, nice team. The conventional wisdom was they would be mostly average, occasionally get into the Top 20 and graduate a bunch of computer engineers. What they couldn’t reasonably do is compete for a league or national title. After all, they’ve been to three Rose Bowls since 1952 and their most famous play was when a trombone player got decked in the end zone.
With Stanford, there was always a ceiling.
“Our players believe they can win a national championship,” Harbaugh said Tuesday. “Our players believe they can win a Pac-10 championship. And they believe they don’t have to take a back seat to anyone.”
Ever hear that out of Stanford before? And if so, did you ever think you’d believe that the Cardinal believe it?
Harbaugh, 46, was a star quarterback at Michigan in the 1980s and played 15 seasons in the NFL, most memorably with the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts. He was always going to be a coach, though – his father was a longtime head coach at Western Kentucky and his brother John now leads the Baltimore Ravens.
There are two things he’s never lacked, a work ethic and a confidence born from that work ethic. It drove him as a player. It carried over as a coach. When he first became a low-level assistant for the Oakland Raiders, he often slept three nights a week at the team’s training facility, which you’re not going to get every day out of a guy who made NFL millions.
He was so sure of his ability that he jumped at the chance to be a head coach – going to Division I-AA University of San Diego in 2004. The trappings of the big time didn’t matter. He just wanted to win. He went 29-6 in three seasons.
When he took over at Stanford, he had a vision for success. “Our goal is to win multiple conference championships … treat people first class and do it with student-athletes in accordance to the mission statement of the university,” he said.
He had a plan he was convinced would make it happen. Part of it was making everyone else believe and that meant not giving an inch to anyone, even Carroll’s juggernaut Trojans. The two clashed through the media before Harbaugh even coached a game for the Cardinal. Then Stanford ruined the Trojans’ perfect 2007 season with the big upset. Stanford won just four games that year, but it was like Harbaugh had sought out the bully of the block so he could mark his turf.
Since then, everything has churned forward. Victories. Recruits. Momentum. Attitude.
“He reminds me a lot of Tom Izzo,” said Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean, who happens to be Harbaugh’s brother-in-law and once worked for Izzo at Michigan State. “Tom had a real mindset for what he wanted to get done and it just kept growing and growing and growing.
“That’s Jim,” Crean continued. “He has an incredible work ethic and leadership ability. He’s never looked at anything and didn’t think it could be achieved through those principles. So I don’t think there is any question he thought he could win big at Stanford. … He’s a tough, tough coach. He’s never going to back down.”
Stanford has the best all-around athletic department in the country. It owns 99 NCAA team titles all-time, ranking second to only UCLA. It’s won what used to be called the Sears Cup, given for total athletic success, 16 consecutive years. It boasts incredible overall facilities, a one-of-a-kind campus just south of San Francisco and of course those world-class academics.
It’s the admission standards that made many believe football supremacy wasn’t possible. You can find plenty of great swimmers who can get in; enough football players can be a challenge.
Harbaugh has proven to be a relentless recruiter, though, targeting the right ones and winning them over. His 2011 class is ranked eighth nationally by Rivals.com, an unheard-of level for Stanford. Using the school’s national pull, his commitments include eight players ranked as four-star prospects who hail from seven states. Not that recruiting rankings drive him.
“The attitude we are looking for is guys who want to be a part of a team,” Harbaugh said. “Every day I participated in the University of Michigan football program under the legendary Bo Schembechler I was reminded, ‘the team, the team, the team.’ That’s the attitude that we’re talking about here.”
That means no nonsense, high-energy, fully committed players. And ones who don’t mind blazing a new trail few thought possible.
“You ultimately want your team to take on your personality,” said Crean, who attends at least one Stanford game a year to see the operation up close. “That team has taken on Jim’s personality.”
There aren’t a lot of tricks to what Stanford is doing. Mostly the Cardinal have just lined up and beaten people. They have a star quarterback in Andrew Luck. Their calling card, though, is brute force. This is a physical, physical team, which is exactly how the head coach designed it.
Maybe it’s his Midwestern roots or maybe it’s the same counterintuitive thinking that made him believe he should risk his career at I-AA or that Stanford could be a powerhouse, but Harbaugh looks at what is stereotyped as the finesse Pac-10 and believes it is actually the toughest team that wins.
“It’s a strong man’s league,” he said.
If so, who is stronger than these guys?
“It’s about a strong mind, a strong body, a strong will,” Harbaugh said. “It’s building a callous up to hitting and being hit. It’s not closing your eyes when you make a tackle.”
The presumption with Harbaugh is that he’ll eventually leave Stanford. Perhaps for the NFL. Perhaps for his alma mater in Ann Arbor. His name is on every downtrodden program’s wish list. For years, Stanford has been a stepping stone – or a graveyard. He calls all the talk “irrelevant” and notes that he views Stanford as a destination job.
With Harbaugh there, it just might be. The thing with Stanford is everything is in place. There was never a good reason it struggled so often. There was never an explanation for why it couldn’t consistently challenge for the Pac-10. There’s no reason it can’t start happening. And it doesn’t hurt that USC is dealing with severe recruiting sanctions, opening everything up.
Stanford’s been a long-dormant potential giant. It’s been forever seeking someone to wake it up. Now here’s this tough-guy coach who doesn’t just covet a good fight, he’s sure he’ll win it. What’s your deal? Now here are the Cardinal in a Top-10 matchup for the driver’s seat of the league, if not more.
What was once Bay Area nice is now smash-mouth; Jim Harbaugh has put more than those Trojans on the run.