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Stanford Coach Jim Harbaugh appears to be the real deal

In his fourth season, Harbaugh has turned the Cardinal into a serious player in college football, in part by projecting a fiercely competitive streak that his players have adopted. As for his knack for getting under the skin of opponents (especially USC), well, that's just a bonus.

October 04, 2010|By Thomas Bonk

Reporting from Palo Alto, Calif.

The last time Stanford Coach Jim Harbaugh shared the same field as USC was last November at the Coliseum, shortly after the Cardinal finished applying a 55-21 spray-painting on the Trojans and not long after Harbaugh called for a two-point conversion following the seventh of Stanford's eight touchdowns.

Harbaugh shook hands at midfield with a slightly unnerved Pete Carroll, who asked, "What's your deal?"

Harbaugh didn't have to think hard to answer.

"What's your deal?" he replied.

And so, a marketing campaign was born. The three-game "What's Your Deal?" season-ticket mini-plan -- which includes Saturday's game against the Trojans -- has gone over well at Stanford, with more than a thousand sold so far.

Because Carroll is busy exploring his inner NFL with the Seattle Seahawks, only half of the "what's your deal?" participants will be on hand at Stanford Stadium. But as we've found out with Harbaugh, he's probably got something stuffed up his red shirtsleeves that he can pull out and make up for any potential loss in theatrics.

Not that he needs to do that; it's just the way things seem to happen for Harbaugh, who is at once complicated and simple, reflective and insular, open and secretive. Nobody has ever said he wasn't a good coach, or bright, either.

Besides blocking schemes, zone reads and A-gaps, Harbaugh was completely at ease in a recent conversation when he started talking about history (comparing his running backs to the 1908 Young Turks of the Ottoman Empire), literature (Ralph Waldo Emerson) or philosophy ("One of my favorites of this century . . . Ric Flair," he said).

What Harbaugh doesn't want to talk about -- ever -- are injuries. He doesn't like the opposition to know who's hurt and for how long. That's why he wouldn't talk about the injury to Ryan Whalen -- who has missed the last two games -- and told his players and Whalen to stay quiet, too, even though the receiver eventually showed up at practice with his arm in a sling.

Harbaugh does not apologize for this silent-treatment tactic, believing it to be the wave of the future among college coaches. Any injured Stanford player is day-to-day.

Meanwhile, Harbaugh is man of the moment around this place. He just doesn't want to sound like it.

Here is what he said before playing Oregon last Saturday: "We'd like to limit their side of the scoring, as much as possible."

That actually proved impossible for Stanford, which was overpowered in the second half and lost to the Ducks, 52-31. It was Stanford's first loss in five games and dropped the Cardinal from No. 9 to No. 16 in the Associated Press poll.

As for Harbaugh, a coach who detests getting too out front on any issue, he sometimes just can't help himself.

In his first year at Stanford, 2007, Harbaugh questioned the admissions practices at Michigan, his alma mater. He got under Carroll's skin that same year when he said before the season that USC might be the best team in the history of college football. (That was also the year Stanford, as a 41-point underdog, upset the Trojans, 24-23, at the Coliseum, putting Harbaugh and his fledgling program on the map.)

Then there are Harbaugh's activities on the sideline. During Stanford's 35-0 victory over UCLA last month, Harbaugh demonstrated to an official his impression of what actually happened on a previous play by flopping on his back. With less than six minutes to go against Wake Forest, Stanford recovered a fumble, but the officials said the play had been blown dead. Harbaugh challenged the call and it went to replay. Stanford was ahead, 68-24. In the same game, Harbaugh called a timeout just before halftime to try to ice the Wake Forest field-goal kicker. The score was 41-7 at the time.

The prevailing sentiment in competitive sports is that if you don't appreciate the way you're getting your hat handed to you, then do something to stop it. So in that context Harbaugh cannot be flagged for piling on, but instead as someone who has installed some swagger into the gait of players. He's done it with recruiting prowess, by bringing in five assistant coaches with NFL experience and by ultimately changing the personality of Stanford football.

"Smash- mouth," running back Stepfan Taylor said.

Harbaugh used other words. "We're a blue-collar team," he said. "As long as we have shoes, grease boards and a field, we're good to go."

Just don't go saying nice things about him. Harbaugh doesn't want to be praised, which is why he brought up Emerson, who wrote in an essay in 1838: "As long as all that is said is said against me, I feel a certain sublime assurance of success."

That was Emerson. This is Harbaugh: "Flowery words of praise heaped upon you and I feel a lot more vulnerable."

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