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.]

Xs and Os ProficiencyfDQuMFQ[1]

Harbaugh's quick move to the head coaching ranks and extensive NFL career means there's no track record as a coordinator to check here. Harbaugh is an offensive guy, though, one with a playsheet and red pen, so let's check those offenses. San Francisco's DVOA NFL numbers are above and show an immediate improvement with near-elite offenses until this year's step back (a step back that isn't as severe as the raw numbers look because of San Francisco's brutal schedule). The Stanford transformation is even more impressive:

Team Year Record FEI S&P YPC YPA YPP
Stanford 2006 1-11 N/A 113 2.1 (118th) 6.3 N/A
Stanford 2007 4-8 61 83 3.0 (113th) 6 N/A
Stanford 2008 5-7 48 31 4.9 (20th) 6.4 (82nd) 59
Stanford 2009 8-5 1 6 5.2 (7th) 8.7 (7th) 9
Stanford 2010 12-1 5 3 5.2 (16th) 8.9 (10th) 13
Stanford 2011 11-2 6 8 5.3 (13th) 8.7 (7th) 6

Harbaugh took over a team that was at the absolute bottom of the barell and by year three they were flat-out elite by any metric you care to name, held back by bad luck and a defense that wasn't quite on the offense's level.

As I mentioned above: it's worth noting that Harbaugh has ranged from xtreme manball to a spread/pro hybrid that even Chip Kelly felt was familiar:

“Yeah, they’ve run some zone-read stuff with Kap, and they do a really good job with it,” Roman said. “They’ve added their own wrinkles to it. I don’t think when anybody visits anybody they say, ‘I’m going to take this exactly from them.’

“You learn and think, ‘How do I apply to my personnel.’ That’s a strength of Jim and Greg, they adapt their offense to their personnel.”

Kelly described both versions of Harbaugh offense as "exotic," which is weird and true:

“They’re a little bit more exotic than they were at Stanford, maybe because they have more time with players, and because they have smart players on offensive side of the ball,” Kelly said. “I’ve had a lot of respect for Jim and Greg Roman, going against them, because they can scheme up the run game as good as anyone I’ve ever seen.”

Those 5.2s above are crazy given the context—on par with Rodriguez's Denard-era run games minus, you know, Denard. This is not a scheme that's just "run it until you stop it"—Harbaugh is trying to screw with your run fits every play.

At Michigan, expect the manball. While Harbaugh has moved to a number of pistol and zone read looks with Kaepernick, the Niners have been the grungiest offense in the league under him:

The 49ers used three or more wide receivers on just 22 percent of their plays in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus, including just three all season that had four or more wideouts.

That was the lowest number in the NFL. San Francisco moved to more wideouts this year, but that 1) was spurred by tight end injuries and 2) saw SF's offensive efficiency dip considerably. Expect tight ends and fullbacks. Only this time they'll actually work.


Andrew Luck Notre Dame v Stanford OXDuryzTNpUl[1]

Luck was Harbaugh's first QB recruit at Stanford

Harbaugh's track record here is not extensive, and it's muddled by the fact that Stanford has the most stringent admission standards in D-I by some distance. It's still pretty good. For one, there's the Western Kentucky stuff, where Harbaugh would drop in on random high school kids while still an NFL quarterback and knock their socks off:

"I called the coach at Warren Central [High School] last year after we beat Miami,'' Harbaugh said at the time. "I introduced myself and asked if he had any prospects. There was quiet for a moment, and then the coach said, 'Yeah, and I'm Mike Ditka.' "

In 2002, the program peaked with the Hilltoppers winning the Division I-AA national championship. Jim was credited with signing 17 of the players on that team. Not bad for a volunteer. …

"Ever since I met Jim Harbaugh that day in the cafeteria my life has gone nowhere but up," Taggart said. "He's been my role model. And he showed me the blueprint to recruiting, coaching and building a program."

For two, once he got his claws in at Stanford he created a noticeable and sustained bump after Andrew Luck was the lone four star in his first class. Quite a four star, though.

The rest, they say, is history. Harbaugh was not around to net the juiciest of proceeds from his success there, but he took the Cardinal from nowhere to somewhere:

Team Coach Year Recruits 247 Comp JUCOs 4* 5*
Stanford Teevens 2006 16 58 0 0 0
Stanford Hybrid 2007 19 44 0 0 0
Stanford Harbaugh 2008 17 45 0 1 0
Stanford Harbaugh 2009 23 18 0 9 0
Stanford Harbaugh 2010 23 25 0 4 0
Stanford Hybrid 2011 19 22 0 6 0
Stanford Shaw 2012 22 7 0 9 2

Given the context that is extremely impressive. Stanford has a much smaller pool than everyone else and won't even assure admittance to committed recruits, which caused more than a few decommits over Harbaugh's tenure. They also eschew the high turnover that creates the large classes recruiting rankings have always favored. By the time he left, he'd put David Shaw in terrific position to land a top-ten class.

I wouldn't expect anything less here.

That's half of the recruiting battle—getting guys. The other half is identifying the right guys to go after, and in that department Harbaugh has been off the charts:

"At Stanford, Harbaugh's recruiting was off the charts," Huffman said. "His first full class in 2008 was one of the best classes you'll see, in terms of what those players did in their career.

"First, he signed Andrew Luck, dropping Dayne Crist to pursue Luck heavily. That worked out. He brought in some stars, who local schools wanted badly, like David DeCastro (Washington's top prospect) and Jonathan Martin (who was committed to UCLA) and both were All-Americans. Chase Thomas, he got out of SEC country, and he was a three-year starter. Sam Schwartzstein came from Texas and started for two years. Delano Howell was another multi-year starter."

Harbaugh's recruting classes vastly outperformed their ratings and continued to do so even after his departure.

CEO Stuff

Harbaugh's coaching tree is already extensive and impressive. Shaw has been a success at Stanford (even if he does punt from the opponent 29). Scott Shafer was Harbaugh's first DC hire; Willie Taggart was his first WKU recruit. I mean, this is one staff:

That is Bo level in terms of people who go on to do things. That's five(!) current head coaches (Shaw, Shafer, Taggart, Mason, Polian), Harbaugh's current coordinators, the Colts' OC, and a former Florida DC probably taking the same role at Michigan… who is 36. That is already better than Lloyd Carr. One of Urban Meyer's main assets as a coach is his ability to find the Mullens and Strongs and Hermans of the world; Harbaugh seems to have the same knack.

Potential Catches

That thing you said, you know, that thing. Back in 2007, then Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh bombed Michigan's academics:

"Michigan is a good school and I got a good education there," he said, "but the athletic department has ways to get borderline guys in and, when they're in, they steer them to courses in sports communications. They're adulated when they're playing, but when they get out, the people who adulated them won't hire them."

Harbaugh, being Harbaugh, did not back down one iota when Michigan blew up at him.

"I learned from a great man named Bo Schembechler that you speak the truth as you know it. It may not be the popular thing, but you speak your mind. Everything I said is supported by fact, but the thing that has come back is the personal attack on me, not looking at the issue whatsoever."

I don't think people care too much about something that went down that long ago, and now that Harbaugh is at Michigan they'll be talking about the excellent Hoke-era APR and graduation rate; Harbaugh will talk up making Michigan better. After the initial press conference it'll be a nonissue.

MANBALL? I'm a spread zealot, but I'm not crazy. For one, Harbaugh has displayed a unique ability to take caveman football and make it work in a modern context. His Stanford teams are super interesting precisely because they are not "pro style," at least in the Carr-era 1990s sense that everyone seems to mean when they invoke that term. Harbaugh's Stanford offenses were echoes of the 1960s and 1970s, when men were men and heads were ground flat by repeated impact. They were an outlier in the exact opposite way the spread was an outlier when it first arrived on the scene.

For two, Harbaugh has shown a tactical flexibility that eluded Hoke. Harbaugh inherited 2005 #1 overall pick Alex Smith and threw him overboard in his first year for Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick has rushed for about 500 yards a year since his installation as the starter as the 49ers have moved towards a spread-ish system that uses Kaepernick's mobility in a modern, NFL-appropriate way.

Stanford overshadows all here so sometimes we forget that Harbaugh was one of the forerunners of today's true dual-threat QBs. He racked up almost 3,000 rushing yards in the NFL at 5 yards a pop. He knows the value of QB legs, and has demonstrated that. Here's another thing we forget: Andrew Luck ran for 800 yards his first two years at Stanford.

If a Pryor or a Gardner presents himself to Harbaugh he'll recruit that guy, and with his evident ability to manball it on a college level he'll recruit the big time pocket guys as well. He can make both work.

He's just going to leave in three years. His heart is really in the NFL. He only cares about the money. NFL and rival spins all. If Jim Harbaugh wanted to be in the NFL, he'd be in the NFL. He would have listened to opposing offers instead of leaving for Ann Arbor literally one day after the NFL season ended. He would have caused NFL openings at attractive jobs if he indicated he wanted the job.

Meanwhile… anyone asserting that he's just going to bolt in two or three years—Chris Mortensen, Kim Kawakami, and infinite MSU yappers are in this boat—is poking their fingers in their ears and going LA LA LA LA LA when anyone tries to remind them about who Jim Harbaugh is. Harbaugh may go back to the NFL, but only after he's done the thing he came to Ann Arbor to do.

Meanwhile, the money thing… remember how two weeks ago the NFL people were all laughing at it, asserting that the Raiders would easily match and go to ten or twelve? Yeah. It's not about the money. The money is a thing that needs to be there for seriousness, but if it was only about the money this would not have happened.

Would He Take The Job?

The following section is NSF NFL reporters.


Overall Attractiveness

"All of our lives you're told so many things you can't do," first-year Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh said by telephone Sunday. "You're not fast enough, you're not smart enough, a thousand times no, a thousand times can't — until all the no's become meaningless. On Oct. 6, 2007, the Stanford players said, 'Yes.' "




December 29th, 2014 at 12:21 PM ^

Brian's subtle but important wording in this post notes that Stanford beating USC in 2007 was indeed the greatest upset in history. It's technically correct, which is the best kind of correct.

Sent from MGoBlog HD for iPhone & iPad


December 29th, 2014 at 12:21 PM ^

I still cannot believe it's going to happen.  We just hit a grandslam that changes the landscape of not only the big 10 but also college football.  Yes, he hasn't won a game but the announcement alone is a game changer.  Couldn't be happier, finally some positive news. 





December 29th, 2014 at 12:34 PM ^

"Harbaugh is an offensive guy, though, one with a playsheet and red pen, so let's check those offenses."

When someone's unquestionably good at something I look at what they're NOT good at. RichRod was an offensive guy and his M defenses were terrible. Hoke was a defensive guy and his M offenses were terrible. Harbaugh is an offensive guy, so let's check those defenses.

At a glance, they took longer to develop than the offense, but the 2010 D pitched three shutouts and held nine opponents to less than 20 points. Oregon was the outlier and they played in the NC game that year. That's four years removed from a 1-11 season where they allowed 30+ points in six straight games including 35 to San Jose State (!), 37 to Navy (!!) and 36 to Washington State (!!!).  Yeah, they'll be fine.

What's really fun is comparing the 2006 and 2010 schedules.  There's almost a complete score inversion.  In 2006, ND bullied them in a then-typical score of 31-10.  In 2010, ND lost 37-14 and they were in good company.  Oregon State, 7-30 became 38-0.  UCLA, 0-31 to 35-0 (!!!!).  This guy is ridiculous.

P.S. All that and he's big on academics? I need a fainting couch!

Everyone Murders

December 29th, 2014 at 12:56 PM ^

Your comment in general is really good, but the postscript is something that I've not fully appreciated since the prospect of Harbaugh returning became real.  I think that Hoke did a good job with this (and Carr emphasized this too), but Harbaugh brings that rarest of blends of football megalomania and strongly valuing academics.

Thanks for underscoring this.  I'm optimistic regarding this Harbaugh guy.  He may just turn out to be okay!


December 29th, 2014 at 12:32 PM ^

Listening to them right now. Even Desmond would not say it was done.  Then some moron (don't know his name) said "right now the Bears, Jets and Raiders are talking to Harbaugh's agent and you never know".

ESPN and the NFL are like MSNBC and Democrats or Fox news and Republicans.

See no evil, hear no evil.


( I know I broke political taboo, but I am hoping  the fact I used both sides in my analogy will earn me reprieve!)


December 29th, 2014 at 12:38 PM ^

This is a great thing that's happening. The thing all of us believe would be the best thing to happen right now is what we are getting. That's a rare development in life. I had long assumed Harbaugh would come back to AA. And then the Process happened and it kinda seemed that door had closed for good. But life is long and full of weird turns. Great job getting the university's side of this in order, Jim Hackett. Welcome back, Jim.

“We don’t care where we play the game. I hate to say it, but we could play in the parking lot. We could play at 12 noon or midnight. We’re going to be jacked up and we’re going to win.”



December 29th, 2014 at 12:55 PM ^

   ".....and he is the fifth-winningest NFL coach of all time."

Perhaps the fifth winningest active NFL head coach or some other distinction? Because Jimmy is only the fifth winningest coach in 49ers history since the AFL-NFL merger.

None of which matters because HARBAUGH!!!!! HARBAUGH! HARBAUGH! HARBAUGH!



December 29th, 2014 at 1:05 PM ^

Great article as always Brian.  Digressing, when it comes to optimism there are several camps, and I'm in the guarded optimism camp.  While everyone is going gaga over the hire, I choose not to.  I owe it to Coach Harbaugh and the program not to set my expectations beyond what is reasonable, so that I can be pleasantly surprised if we go 8-4 next year, as opposed to disappointed as so many here apparently will be.

I'm very happy with this hire, I just hope the fanbase can start doing its part to support Coach Harbaugh by giving him room to breathe, and time to adjust and grow the program back to where it will hopefully be.

We have not won a game yet under Jim.  Let's quietly applause the hire and Hackett and, once we beat Sparty and OSU, be it this year or 2016, at that point explode in appreciation for Coach JH.