Profiles In Heroism: Jim Harbaugh

Profiles In Heroism: Jim Harbaugh

Submitted by Brian on December 29th, 2014 at 12:01 PM

Age 51
Exp. First year
Record N/A
Previous Jobs
HC @ San Francisco 2011-14
HC @ Stanford 2007-10
HC @ San Diego 2004-06
QB @ Oakland 2002-03
GA(?) @ WKU 1994-01
Playing Career
QB at Michigan, 1983-86
QB, various NFL, 1987-2001

Jim Harbaugh is a high-functioning lunatic. The other way to say this is "FOOTBALL COACH," all-caps mandatory. Raised by a high-functioning lunatic who exhorted his kids to attack each day with "an enthusiasm unknown to mankind," coached by a high-functioning lunatic who could repeat "the team" until it became a mantra to live by, brother to a high-functioning lunatic who beat him in a Super Bowl, Jim Harbaugh was born to do this job, in this place, at this time.

Jim Harbaugh repeatedly shoots ten-year-olds to win laser tag. He smears his players' blood on his face as war paint. He yells at ESPN camera crews to talk to his quarterback instead of him when his third-string pottery major orchestrates the biggest upset in the history of college football. He quotes Bo and his dad, who is also of Bo, probably without even realizing it anymore. He will not get yelled at when ordering at Blimpy, and he is the fifth-winningest NFL coach of all time. He resurrected Stanford from the dead and set them up for their longest sustained success ever. He can recite Bob Ufer calls from memory.

He is the head coach of the University of Michigan. Finally.

Harbaugh's coaching career actually started while he was still an NFL player. Not content with merely being a quarterback, Harbaugh started helping out with father Jack's Western Kentucky program. Harbaugh was a freelance recruiter:

The plan was simple: Jim owned a home in Orlando, the heart of one of the most talent-rich recruiting areas in the country. So he became an NCAA-certified volunteer assistant coach for WKU, which allowed him to recruit. John, meanwhile, leaned on the scouting services, deep contacts and endless high school game footage they had at Cincinnati, which as a Division I-A school had a far larger budget than Division I-AA Western Kentucky.

That's how Willie Taggart came home one day from track practice at Bradenton (Fla.) Manatee High School and got a message from his sister.

"She told me a guy by the name of Jim Harbaugh called," Taggart said. "I was like, 'What?' "

Harbaugh recruited 17 kids on WKU's 2002 I-AA national championship team, after which both Jim and Jack retired—Jack from coaching, Jim from the NFL. The next year Harbaugh was the Raiders' QB coach, and two years after that he left, crazily, for San Diego, a non-scholarship I-AA school.

In San Diego he inherited at 8-2 outfit, but one that had bounced around .500 for the previous four years. Harbaugh went 7-4 in year one and then took the Toreros to back to back conference championships—their first ever. He was 11-1 in both of those years, and finished 2005 as the #1 team in the mid-major (ie: non-scholarship) I-AA poll. That's a sort of national title.

After Harbaugh's third year at San Diego, a plainly desperate Stanford took a flier on him. After the departure of Ty Willingham to Notre Dame, Stanford hired Buddy Teevens. Teevens lasted only three years, winning all of five conference games and never finishing better than 4-7. Pitt head coach Walt Harris was brought in, had a decent first season, and then cratered. Stanford was one of the worst teams in D-I in Harris's second season, going 1-11. Harris lost to San Jose State and suffered humiliating blowouts against most of the schedule: 48-10  against Oregon, 37-9 against Navy, 38-3 against Arizona State, etc etc etc. Stanford was 110th in the 2006 S&P ratings (FEI only goes back to '07), barely ahead of Eastern Michigan.

Enter Harbaugh.

[Italics == not coached by Harbaugh]

Team Year Record FEI S&P
Stanford 2006 1-11 N/A 110
Stanford 2007 4-8 53 87
Stanford 2008 5-7 66 55
Stanford 2009 8-5 19 51
Stanford 2010 12-1 2 5
Stanford 2011 11-2 7 8
Stanford 2012 12-2 7 18
Stanford 2013 11-3 2 4
Stanford 2014 7-5 20 20

Harbaugh instantly took Stanford from one of the worst teams in the country to competitive, and then depending on which metric you're looking at either had an unlucky and high quality 2009 or made an enormous leap in 2010.

Stanford is an interesting case in the context of these rating systems: S&P is a play-based metric that prizes explosiveness. FEI uses drives and doesn't care if you take 1 or 15 plays to get to the endzone. Harbaugh Stanford was manball to end all manball, and unsurprisingly FEI is generally more enthused than S&P. Harbaugh defied statistical convention—S&P has very good reasons to prize explosiveness—to create one of the ass-kickingest teams in all of college football. In a world where the spread has come to dominate, Harbaugh is a proven outlier.

Harbaugh also built a program. When I do these I generally like to see declines when the coach in question is a coordinator. That shows the guy was able to do more with basically the same talent. But when he's in charge of the whole shebang sustained quality after departure is a good sign, especially when the program you left decides their best course of action is to hire internally to keep a good thing going. When Brady Hoke left Ball State after their breakout year, the Cardinals went with an entirely new staff and immediately collapsed back to the pack. When Harbaugh left Stanford, they hired his offensive coordinator, attempted to preserve everything he'd brought the program, and ripped off three consecutive 11-win seasons.

By the time Harbaugh had built Stanford into Football Ron Swanson, he was the hottest coaching prospect anywhere, college or pro. In 2011 he accepted the 49ers job, taking  over a franchise that hadn't been to the playoffs since 2002 and was coming off a 6-10 year.

Harbaugh instantly made them excellent.

Team Year Record DVOA – overall DVOA – D DVOA – O
San Francisco 2010 6-10 24 24 15
San Francisco 2011 13-3 6 18 3
San Francisco 2012 11-4-1 4 3 5
San Francisco 2013 12-4 7 13 8
San Francisco 2014 8-8 14 5 18

In year one the Niners went from a –41 point differential to +151, went 13-3, and lost in the NFC championship game. The next year he made the Super Bowl, losing a three-point game to his brother. In 2013 the Niners were one infamous Richard Sherman play away from returning to the Super Bowl. It was only this year, long after the Niners management had undermined Harbaugh's tenure, that the 49ers slipped to average. Even then they went 8-8 despite facing an avalanche of injuries. The main reason they weren't in the playoff hunt was the NFC South losing every game outside of its division.

Even with the slip to .500 in year four, it would take a truly moronic owner to cast Jim Harbaugh aside. Jed York is that man. And now Michigan has theirs.

[After THE JUMP: Xs and Os, recruiting, HARBAUGH.]

Profiles In Heroism: Tom Herman

Profiles In Heroism: Tom Herman

Submitted by Brian on December 10th, 2014 at 4:31 PM


Offensive Coordinator/
QB Coach
Ohio State
Age 39
Exp. 3rd year
Record N/A
Previous Jobs
OC/QB @ Iowa St 2009-11
OC/QB @ Rice 2007-08
OC @ Texas St 2005-06
WR @ Sam Houston 2001-04
Playing Career
WR at Cal Lutheran, 1994-97

These again. We're skipping Harbaugh because it's not like you need to be told about Harbaugh. In the event M does hire him, he'll get one.

These are in approximate order of personal preference.

Previously: Dan Mullen, Jim Mora

I know, I know: must be head coach, if not head coach doom doom doom. To me that thinking is excessively narrow when you start talking about guys like Gary Pinkel and Steve Addazio. Many of the standout coaches in college football today started their head coaching careers at Power 5 schools—even major ones.

Here is a list of currently active college head coaches who had never been head coach before their appointment at a Power 5 school, in approximate groupings:


note: "outsider" includes people brought in from the outside as designated successors who went through a coach-in-waiting period like Fisher and Bielema.

Jimbo Fisher (Florida State), Bob Stoops (Oklahoma), Charlie Strong (Texas via Louisville), Dan Mullen (Mississippi State), Bret Bielema (Arkansas via Wisconsin), Bill Snyder (KSU), Mark Richt (UGA), Dana Holgorsen (WVU), Les Miles (LSU via Okie State), James Franklin (PSU via Vandy)


Steve Sarkisian (USC via Washington).


Mike Gundy (Oklahoma State), Gary Patterson (TCU), Dabo Swinney (Clemson), Mark Helfrich (Oregon), Pat Fitzgerald (Northwestern), Kyle Whittingham (Utah), David Shaw (Stanford).


    Paul Chryst (Pitt), Scott Shafer (Syracuse), Paul Rhoads (ISU), Kliff Kingsbury (Texas Tech), Kyle Flood (Rutgers), Derek Mason (Vandy), Mike Leach (WSU via Texas Tech), Mark Stoops (Kentucky), Kevin Wilson (Indiana)


    This is biased in favor of good coaches because bad ones get fired, but this list contains 18 names before you even get to the "no alternative" section—approximately half of Power 5 existing head coaches had no experience with a top job when hired.

    In addition, there are a number of current head coaches with very brief or almost irrelevant head coaching experience. Before Nick Saban was hired at MSU he had all of one year as a HC at Toledo; Gus Malzahn was at Arkansas State for a single year before Auburn scooped him up; Hugh Freeze was at the same place for a single year and had a couple years at something called Lambuth beforehand.

When you take the guys who were hired based on things other than their head coaching experience you have a collection of assistant-hirin' schools that are amongst the biggest in college: Florida State, Oklahoma, Georgia, Oklahoma State, Washington, Oregon, Clemson, Wisconsin, Auburn, Ole Miss.

Hiring a hot assistant is a valid option if the right guy is available. And Tom Herman has a case that he's the right guy.

[After THE JUMP: all about that case.]

Profiles In Heroism: Jim Mora The Younger

Profiles In Heroism: Jim Mora The Younger

Submitted by Brian on December 8th, 2014 at 3:22 PM


Head  Coach, UCLA
Age 53
Exp. 3rd year
Record 28-11
Previous Jobs
HC @ Seattle 2009
DB/AHC @ Seattle 2007-08
HC @ Atlanta 2004-06
DC @ San Fransisco 1999-03
Playing Career
LB/DB, Washington, 1980-83

These again. We're skipping Harbaugh because it's not like you need to be told about Harbaugh. In the event M does hire him, he'll get one.

These are in approximate order of personal preference.

Previously: Dan Mullen.

Jim E. Mora is the son of Jim "Playoffs?!" L. Mora, and as a result joined the nepotism-friendly ranks of NFL position coaches soon after he graduated college. After a decade as a DBs coach he broke through as the San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator, parlaying that into two brief, unsuccessful stints as an NFL head coach.

After the second—a one-year gig with the Seahawks after which he was thrown overboard for Pete Carroll—Mora was out of coaching for two years. When UCLA tapped him for their head coaching job, Bruins Nation was wroth. Bruins Nation is always wroth but at the time it seemed like they had a point. Mora looked like a guy who'd never have gotten anywhere without his father's name and seemed a particularly poor fit for college, what with his single year as a Washington grad assistant. The motivation appeared to be "he's kind of like Pete Carroll."

But it's worked rather well. Mora's led the Bruins to three 6-3 Pac-12 records in three years, had a 10-3 2013, and hasn't won fewer than nine games. This is a considerable step up from Rick Neuheisel (21-29 in 4 seasons), Karl Dorrell (35-27 in 5 seasons) and even nominally successful Bob Toledo, who followed up two top-ten outings in the late 1990s with a string of mediocre teams and finished his career 49-32. Mora's three years are the most successful UCLA has had in 15 years, and you have to go back to Terry Donahue's mid-80s heyday to find anything definitively better.

So he's plausible. But how good have these seasons actually been, and what happens post-Hundley?

[After THE JUMP: bad NFL defenses, excellent recruiting, and stealth spread.]

Profiles In Heroism: Dan Mullen

Profiles In Heroism: Dan Mullen

Submitted by Brian on December 4th, 2014 at 3:41 PM


Head Coach, Mississippi State
Age 42
Exp. 6th year
Record 46-30
Previous Jobs
OC/QB @ Florida 2005-08
QB @ Utah 2003-04
QB @ BGSU 2001-02
GA @ ND 1999-00
Playing Career
TE at Ursinus (PA) in 1992/93

These again. We're skipping Harbaugh because it's not like you need to be told about Harbaugh. In the event M does hire him, he'll get one.

These are in approximate order of personal preference.

Nationally, Dan Mullen is regarded as the best available-ish college head coach in the market this year. This admiration has not extended to all corners of the Michigan fanbase for… reasons. Foremost amongst them are:

  • "He's a one-year wonder." (Who won two national championships at Florida as the primary play-caller and has built MSU into a contender in the toughest division in the country.)
  • "He's not a cultural fit." (He's from Pennsylvania and GA'd at ND. Hell, he coached at Columbia.)
  • "He runs the spread." (You have just slashed out 80% of plausible options. Also, Chris Leak was as mobile as a plant.)
  • "He's never won for real for real." (At the Indiana of the SEC.)

Mississippi State's winning percentage before Dan Mullen arrived was… not good. In the decade before his arrivals this was their power conference peer group:

Rk Team Win % W L
84 Kentucky 0.42748 56 75
85 Rutgers 0.42308 55 75
87 Mississippi State 0.41985 55 76
90 Iowa State 0.41667 55 77
91 Illinois 0.41085 53 76

Bulldog futility goes further back than that; you have to go back to the 50s before you find a MSU head coach capable of consistently keeping the Bulldogs above .500. His winning percentage of 60.5% is in the WVU-Miami-Utah-Iowa range and is virtually unprecedented. It's also better than Michigan's over the same time frame. At Mississippi State.


Reasons for hiring or not hiring a coach are not made in a vacuum, so if you'd like to make one of these arguments you have to bring along a guy who has a better resume than Dan Mullen. Gary Patterson? Sure! I'm totally down with Gary Patterson if you can crowbar him out of TCU, but you can't. Given the hires Nebraska and Florida just made I don't think anyone who could-might-kinda be available is. That leaves Dan Mullen and…

Seriously, I don't know. Mullen is the default college head coach choice. Fortunately, he seems like a pretty good one.

[After THE JUMP: the anti-Borges at QB, overblown oversigning concerns, and CEO stuff.]