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Harbaugh left NFL to head I-AA program

2/20/2004 - San Diego Toreros

SAN DIEGO -- Sitting in his cramped, cluttered office tucked
away on an otherwise spectacular campus, Jim Harbaugh practically
gushes about his new job.

He even gets a twinkle in his eye while talking about leading
his team through conditioning drills at 6 a.m.

"This is where I want to be. I haven't had one day of regret
about what I'm doing," said Harbaugh, the former NFL quarterback
who's not quite two months into his job as head coach at the
University of San Diego, a small Catholic school that has never
made waves in football.

"This is the way college football was set up to be, back when
Rockne was coaching at Notre Dame," said Harbaugh, the son of a
former coach. "It didn't deter from their education, it was an
enhancement."

Harbaugh calls it football at its purest, and really, that's the
only way it can exist at USD, which plays in Division I-AA.

Academics are king here, although every decade and a half or so,
the basketball team makes it to the NCAA tournament. USD is ranked
among the top 100 schools nationally by U.S. News & World Report.
Tuition and fees for freshmen in 2004-05 will be $26,660, plus room
and board of more than $9,000.

Recruiting can be tough, and winning the Division I-AA national
title, like Harbaugh's father, Jack, did at Western Kentucky, would
take a miracle. USD plays in the Pioneer Football League, which
does not offer football scholarships -- although financial aid is
available. Plus, the league champion does not get an automatic
berth in the playoffs.

As far as anyone can remember, the Toreros -- Spanish for
"bullfighters" -- have had only one player go to the NFL.

Torero Stadium, while bucolic, seats 7,000, or more than 100,000
fewer than Michigan Stadium, where Harbaugh played before going to
the Chicago Bears in the first round of the 1987 NFL draft.

Maybe that's what makes the job appealing to Harbaugh, 40, who
developed an affinity for USD while playing for the Chargers in
1999-00. His daughter was baptized at USD, and a monsignor from the
school was one of the Chargers' chaplains.

"Even then I said, `That would be a great school for my kids to
go to,' Harbaugh said. "I didn't think I'd ever be working here,
but it's just that kind of environment, that kind of place where
you'd want your kids to go to school."

The hilltop school has stunning Spanish Renaissance-style
buildings and a million-dollar view of Mission Bay and the Pacific
Ocean.

"Everywhere you go, people are waving and smiling at you," he
said.

In other words, it's far removed from the paranoid, humorless
world of the NFL. After all, Harbaugh did come here from the
"Black Hole" of the Oakland Raiders, where he was the
quarterbacks coach for two seasons after retiring as a player.

Harbaugh's office is in a trailer perched above one end zone,
but he doesn't care. To Harbaugh, a program doesn't need a huge
stadium or TV exposure.

"The guys here are competitive. They take it seriously. They
want to be great. There's no difference to me whether it's NFL,
Division I, I-AA, Division II, high school ball or Pee-Wee. It's
the same game. It's as important to Evan Harney, our tailback, as
it is to Chris Perry at Michigan."

Harbaugh's scrappiness and determination earned him the nickname
"Captain Comeback" while with Indianapolis in 1995, when the
Colts fell an incomplete pass short of reaching the Super Bowl.
He'd like to make a difference at USD, too.

"I want to build something great here," Harbaugh said. "It's
not good when you're thinking about, `How do I get to the next
job?"'

During his last eight pro seasons, Harbaugh was an unpaid
assistant on his dad's staff at Western Kentucky. He recruited,
helped with spring ball and raised money.

One of the players he enticed to Western Kentucky was Rod Smart,
of He Hate Me fame.

Jack Harbaugh couldn't be more proud of his son.

"I have great expectations," said the elder Harbaugh, who
coached football for 41 years and is now an associate athletic
director at Marquette, where his son-in-law, Tom Crean, is the
basketball coach.

"I think he has so much of a passion for what he's doing, so
much excitement about it, that I really believe that he's just
going to be very successful at this level."

School officials tried to drop football at Western Kentucky in
the early 1990s, which was when Jim Harbaugh started to help his
dad. He organized an auction to raise money and used some of his
endorsement deals to help the school acquire uniforms and shoes.

When he was with the Bears, he would gather up used equipment
and send it to his dad.

"Guys would dip in there and see Richard Dent's shoes or
something like that," Jack Harbaugh said. "The sizes might have
been too big but they wore them anyway, just to say they wore
Richard Dent's shoes."

Jack Harbaugh left Western Kentucky after winning the Division
I-AA national championship in 2002.

"Without Jim's involvement, we may not have had football and we
never would have won the national championship," said Jack
Harbaugh, who will help his son during spring ball and fall camp.

USD fired Kevin McGarry midway through the season for
unspecified reasons, then finished the year 8-2 and tied for first
place in the Pioneer League's Northern Division.

Ky Snyder, USD's new executive athletic director, said
Harbaugh's hiring has given the school credibility in recruiting.

"The opportunity for kids to be coached by a guy like Harbaugh,
it's opening doors. Before, we may have been able to get into a
home but not get a real shot. Now we have a shot."

Said wide receiver Adam Hannula: "He's a coach who really
understands the game but wants to learn more. It's exciting to play
for him."

A few friends said Harbaugh was nuts for leaving the NFL, and he
got mixed reactions from several coaches before taking the job,
including his college coach, Bo Schembechler.

"I kind of thought Bo thought it was a mistake," Harbaugh
said.

Raiders owner Al Davis originally thought it was a mistake, too,
Harbaugh said. In the end, Davis gave Harbaugh his blessing and
some advice.

"'Just be great,' is what he said. 'Just win.' "