Replacing Harbaugh: Candidates and Considerations

Jan. 8, 2011, 12:26 a.m.

Welcome to Life After Harbaugh. First task: finding his replacement. It is surely a moment that Athletics Director Bob Bowlsby has been preparing for, even as Stanford came tantalizingly close to retaining Captain Comeback—indeed, by some accounts, Bowlsby has been talking with potential candidates for a week now. Let’s examine the current and upcoming process, and some names that have been floated thus far.

New coach’s responsibilities

1a) Retain the recruiting class

Whenever a coach leaves a program—particularly a coach with as strong a personality as Harbaugh—there is bound to be attrition from the current recruiting class. Stanford, with 22 commits for the class of 2011, is ranked No. 6 nationally. With National Signing Day just around the bend, the new coach must be on the phone and on the road to ensure that as few players as possible switch to other schools. He must pay specific attention to players being actively recruited by Notre Dame and USC, the two programs Stanford has begun to compete the most with for players—tremendously skilled athletes, such as local product and tenuous Cardinal commit Amir Carlisle, hang in the balance.

1b) Retain Vic Fangio

Simple numbers can be so illuminating: under Fangio, Stanford’s scoring defense jumped from No. 69 nationally to No. 11 in a single year. As important as Andrew Luck and the Cardinal offense was to the team’s success, it was the defense’s massive jump that catapulted Stanford into the nation’s elite. This is not to devalue other coaches—Lance Anderson has been a remarkable recruiting coordinator, Brian Polian is one of the nation’s best recruiters, and there are few, if any holes amongst the rest of the staff. That being said, keeping Fangio on board is paramount, and won’t necessarily be easy. Harbaugh could take him to San Francisco, which runs a 3-4, or he could wind up with another collegiate job—he’s been linked to both the Texas (no longer vacant) and UCLA defensive coordinator gigs.

Stanford’s considerations

Replacing Harbaugh: Candidates and Considerations
Senior wide receiver Doug Baldwin (89) wants offensive coordinator David Shaw to be the next head coach of the Stanford Cardinal

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This extends both to the program and individual players. While Harbaugh was a unique personality whose success will not be easily replicated, there are basic tenets that can and should remain. First: a pro-style offense that places a heavy emphasis on line play and use of its tight ends. Second: a hands-off approach with Andrew Luck. Harbaugh, a quarterback himself, was notoriously reluctant to try and change Luck too much, for fear of complicating his already stellar mechanics and fundamentals. Luck is a finished product; he doesn’t need much modification. Third: an emphasis on work ethic and meritocracy. One of Harbaugh’s great triumphs was having a group of Stanford students envision themselves as blue-collar workers; the tactic had dramatic success.

Beyond style, there are certain factors to consider when choosing a coach. Luck’s return, as well as the general status of the program, might prompt Stanford to try and create some continuity between regimes—this would lead them to favor an in-house candidate. However, in the past, when an assistant is elevated to head coach, there is usually more attrition amongst the staff, as they become reluctant to work underneath someone they once considered their equal. Stanford is in a place where it could likely land a big name, but Bowlsby has shown a knack for finding diamonds in the rough in the past. Kirk Ferentz was a position coach with the Baltimore Ravens before taking the reins at Iowa; Harbaugh was the head coach for a FCS program. In other words: just because you can land a big name, does it mean you should? Conundrums for the Cardinal to consider.

Coaching candidates

Chris Petersen, Head Coach, Boise State

This would be the “whale” of the group: a long accomplished coach who could move from a national powerhouse to one of 2010’s top programs. Petersen, who has been at Boise State since 2001 and has been head coach since 2005, has had his name mentioned for a myriad of openings over the years, but has demurred each time. But Stanford presents an intriguing option. Petersen went to UC-Davis and is from just north of Sacramento. He’s western through and through—outside of one year at Pittsburgh, he has spent his entire career working and living no farther east than Idaho. He also shies away from the spotlight, and while Stanford is a Pac-12 job, it does not come with the glare of other major programs. Petersen is an offensive mind who runs a pro-style attack similar to Stanford’s, and while he returns Kellen Moore to Boise, he just lost his offensive coordinator to Texas. There has reportedly been mutual interest between the two parties, and in the early aftermath of Harbaugh’s departure, Petersen has become a, if not the, top choice to replace him.

Mike Bellotti, former Head Coach, Oregon

Bellotti would be the other big name in the search. A Ducks legend—he was at the university in some capacity for two decades—Bellotti, at 60 years old, would not be as youthful as candidates Bowlsby has traditionally pursued, but he would bring a vast array of experience, knowledge and success. Though Bellotti has retired and is now an analyst for ESPN, he has not ruled out a return to coaching. While it would, on the surface, seem unlikely that he would coach in the same conference as Oregon, Phil Knight, the John Arrillaga of Eugene, has significant Stanford ties—the new business school will carry his name. Bellotti has already been linked to the opening and has commented on his status publicly, telling the Oregonian that both sides would have to determine if it was a “good fit.”

David Shaw, Offensive Coordinator, Stanford

Shaw is seen as one of the two in-house candidates to replace Harbaugh. A Stanford football alum and favorite son, Shaw is beloved by alumni. Since starting with Harbaugh in 2007, he has been one of the major architects of the Cardinal’s impressive offense throughout his tenure, although his responsibilities have been slightly usurped in recent years. He’s also favorite of the current Cardinal athletes—Doug Baldwin told the San Jose Mercury News that “all the players want David Shaw as the head coach.”

Greg Roman, Associate Head Coach, Stanford

Roman quickly became Harbaugh’s right hand man after coming to the Farm in 2009—he was the designated head coach if Harbaugh was to become incapacitated in any way. Roman was one of three finalists for the Vanderbilt job, and is currently interviewing for the Pittsburgh opening. He has quietly cut into Shaw’s role as offensive coordinator, the point where he, Shaw and Harbaugh were responsible for the offense to varying degrees. His historic focus is in an area where the Cardinal has been the most successful: offensive line and tight ends. Like Shaw, he’d present continuity from the Harbaugh era.

Todd Graham, Head Coach, Tulsa

Graham is the lone defensive coach of the bunch, and has had his name tied to the Stanford opening for a couple of weeks. Seen as an up-and-comer in the ranks—he is currently interviewing at Pittsburgh, too—Graham has finished first (or in a tie for first) in three of his four years with the Golden Hurricane, and would provide stellar defensive credentials should Fangio decide to leave.

The Rub

It is also entirely possible that Bowlsby breaks conventions and finds another unknown to take over the program; or, he could go with a retread. Either way, Bowlsby’s record speaks for itself, and the wheels have been set in motion since before Harbaugh inked his deal with San Francisco. But no matter who he chooses, this much is clear: his work will be cut out for him.

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