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Big Chance at Small College

Ex-quarterback Harbaugh leaves an NFL assistant job to lead University of San Diego

September 16, 2004|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — The stadium, lovely as it is, seats only 7,000.

The coaches' offices are in trailers, strikingly out of place amid the University of San Diego's Spanish renaissance buildings.

Jim Harbaugh played his college football in front of more than 100,000 fans at Michigan and spent 15 seasons as an NFL quarterback.

As an assistant with the Oakland Raiders for two seasons, he was on a track to perhaps one day become an NFL head coach.

Yet as Harbaugh stood looking over USD's field the other day, he seemed at home coaching the Toreros, a Division I-AA program that doesn't offer scholarships.

"Al Davis told me he didn't think it would be a good move," Harbaugh said, recalling a conversation with the Raider owner. "He said, 'I thought you wanted to be a head coach in the NFL.' I said, 'Well Mr. Davis, look at your career. You coached in college.'

"Then he goes, 'Well, that was USC, not USD!' Can't you see him saying that?"

Harbaugh became familiar with USD through a chaplain when he was playing for the Chargers in 1999 and 2000.

His daughter, Gracie, 4, was baptized there, and his father, Jack, who won a Division I-AA national championship as coach at Western Kentucky in 2002, remembers something Jim said that day: "Wouldn't this be some kind of an opportunity to someday coach here?"

"It was almost like it was predestined," Jack said.

When Harbaugh, 40, took the USD job in December, he chose to become a head coach now, without waiting, in no small way to try to re-create for his children what he had as a boy, when his father was an assistant at Michigan.

"I grew up on college campuses," Harbaugh said. "I was the ball boy if I wanted to be the ball boy. I knew how to get in every gym and swimming pool and baseball field, gymnastics, whatever, I'd just go jump on the trampoline. It was like my personal playground."

Now Jim and Miah Harbaugh's three children -- Jay, 15, James, 8, and Gracie -- live in the same sort of world.

"My son fills 100 little cups of Gatorade. He's 8 years old. He helps the trainers. He's pushing a dummy on the side of the field," Harbaugh said. "The kids can be around more than they could at an NFL facility. You just can't really roam through the halls there. It's a much more businesslike environment."

It didn't hurt that the family still had a house in Coronado from Harbaugh's days with the Chargers.

"I think it was my wife's hope maybe someday we'd come back here, maybe retire here," Harbaugh said. "It just felt right, kind of a gut decision more than a laid-out plan. The plan was kind of laid out to be a coach in the NFL. But I saw the opportunity, and I said, 'Here's a chance to be a head coach, here's a chance to do what you believe in.' "

What he believes sounds quaint considering some of the recent events at major-college programs. But Harbaugh said he thinks it can exist at a place such as USD.

"There are some goofy programs around the country, where all that is stressed is playing football for four years," he said. "Then what are those guys left with?

"They might have played in front of 50,000, 60,000, 100,000 people and were on ESPN highlights. But did they leave with a meaningful degree where they can go out and get a job?"

Harbaugh can't offer a scholarship, but he can offer need-based financial aid and a chance to attend USD and play football.

"To me, I feel good about offering that to kids, a lot more so than if I was offering them a scholarship when they couldn't handle being in college or where they had to take some kind of Mickey Mouse degree to get through just so they could play football."

USD players understand that their coach could be hanging out on a golf course, working as a broadcaster or overseeing a chain of auto dealerships instead of working long hours.

"I've thought about that," said Adam Hannula, a junior receiver who set school records with 72 receptions for 1,161 yards and 13 touchdowns last year. "One of our other coaches told me Coach Harbaugh had other job opportunities and took a lot less pay to come coach at USD. I think he wants to build something solid.

"As a coach, he's really inspirational, really positive, really intense."

The Toreros are 1-1 after a loss to Azusa Pacific and a last-minute victory over Holy Cross. They play host to Penn on Saturday, a team that was 10-0 last season.

"We've never really gone to the postseason here or won a championship," Harbaugh said. "In the next five years, the goal is to win Pioneer League championships and make the postseason. As far as winning the I-AA national championship, that would have to be a long-term goal, simply because there are a lot of I-AA teams that have scholarships."

In a way, Harbaugh was bred for this life.

His family is immersed in coaching. His brother John is special teams coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles, and his sister Joani is married to Tom Crean, the basketball coach at Marquette.

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