Harbaugh left NFL to head I-AA program

Updated: February 20, 2004, 2:47 AM ET
Associated Press

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.' "

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press