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Stanford ramps up a new era

Harbaugh, Cardinal's 43-year-old rookie coach, is optimistic yet realistic about massive rebuilding job he faces. He has 17 starters back . . . from a 1-11 team.

August 28, 2007|Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writer

PALO ALTO -- As he walked slowly up the long ramp that leads out the south end of Stanford Stadium after a scrimmage, Jim Harbaugh followed a path familiar to the football coaches who had gone before him.

Glenn "Pop" Warner made a similar trek. So did John Ralston, Jack Christiansen, Dennis Green, Bill Walsh and Tyrone Willingham.

But in the 113th year of Stanford football, there's a chance Harbaugh's journey as the 33rd head coach to walk the sideline at Stanford Stadium is different from any of them. No one's had to walk in footsteps like these.

It has been more of an uphill climb at the Farm for a while now, which is why Harbaugh is here, Stanford's third coach in the last six years, after a 16-40 record over five years of the Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris regimes.

One way to look at it: There's only one direction for Harbaugh to go, and it's up. The Cardinal will be carrying the baggage of a 13-game home losing streak when it begins the 2007 season Saturday at Stanford Stadium against UCLA in Harbaugh's debut.

The old stadium, built in 1921, was replaced last year by one that, with a capacity of about 50,000, is 35,000 seats smaller. And it was usually half-empty in 2006.

It's true there are 17 starters back, but it's also true they come from a 1-11 team that was outscored, 374-107, in the games it lost.

Harbaugh, 43, has never coached a Division I-A team. But Stanford Athletic Director Bob Bowlsby hired him to pull the program from the depths, impressed by Harbaugh's three-year run at the University of San Diego, where he was 29-6.

It's different at Stanford, which is certainly no secret, but then neither is Harbaugh's simple determination. Harbaugh said he would put no pressure on himself, which is probably a good idea, because there are many glad to do it for him.

"It's a day-to-day process with this team, a sense of urgency to get better," Harbaugh said. "We've got smart players that are very competitive. They're tired of getting their butts kicked, so it's all been good."

Stanford-watchers and Harbaugh-graders could have a good idea of how the season will shake out after the first six games -- all of them against teams that played in bowl games last season. The Cardinal plays nine bowl teams -- the most of any team in the nation -- and four opponents who won at least 10 games last season.

The good news, Harbaugh hopes, is that Stanford plays eight games at home, including its first four. "That's definitely to our advantage," he said.

Stanford's biggest disadvantages have been out there between the goal lines, but Harbaugh says that if things go right the Cardinal might begin to level the playing field.

T.C. Ostrander, a fifth-year senior, is the starting quarterback and a team captain. Ostrander, 6 feet 3 and 215 pounds, was mostly a backup to Trent Edwards for three years and played when Edwards was hurt, which was fairly often. He completed 45.6% of his passes last season for 918 yards and three touchdowns with five interceptions.

Ostrander's top target is probably 6-7 senior Evan Moore, but he has missed 13 games the last two years because of injuries. Mark Bradford, another senior wide receiver, injured his foot in the second game last year and didn't play again.

On defense, Stanford will start with six sophomores, three juniors and two seniors -- cornerback Nick Sanchez and nose tackle Chris Horn. Sanchez played the same position last year, but Horn, a team captain, started all 12 games at defensive end.

"We don't have any saviors, but we do have a group of seasoned leaders," Harbaugh said.

". . . There's a culture there that you try to create, it's the guys you have in the program, the people you have in the program and the way you go about your business."

So far, Harbaugh has been outspoken in at least some of his business dealings. He called out Michigan, his alma mater, for how it balances athletics and academics and said basically the same thing about California. Harbaugh also raised some eyebrows when he said he expected Pete Carroll to leave USC after this season. That had barely worn off at the Pacific 10 Conference media day when Harbaugh said USC "may be the greatest team in the history of college football."

Said Carroll: "Got to love Jim, don't you?"

His personality doesn't bruise easily. Harbaugh was arrested for driving under the influence in 2005 and immediately went public, expressing remorse and accepting responsibility. And in the aftermath of his Michigan-Cal-USC comments, Harbaugh did not claim he was misquoted or that his words were taken out of context or misconstrued.

There is pressure at Stanford, Harbaugh said, but he doesn't call it that.

"The only goal, No. 1, is to graduate players with meaningful degrees. And, No. 2 is to win. Those are the only goals I have."

Athletic Director Bowlsby said Harbaugh is not an off-the-cuff guy, nor is he a coach who says things to draw flak to himself in order to deflect it from his players.

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