Jim Harbaugh might be a brash, abrasive and fiery son of a bitch, but don’t say that he doesn’t give a damn good handshake. Jim Schwartz found that out the hard way on Sunday, right after Harbaugh’s 49ers turned Schwartz’s Detroit Lions into house cats.
But while Harbaugh’s untucked shirt from that very same fracas may now rival Jet’s coach Rex Ryan’s longstanding foot fetish as the best body-part-related controversy to discuss around the office, don’t let that stop us from realizing just what James Joseph Harbaugh has meant to the Stanford football program.
There are many who doubted that Harbaugh would be the one to resurrect a team that went 1-11 in 2006, the year before the then-42-year old took over for Walt Harris.
Harbaugh had previously been the head coach at the University of San Diego, a I-AA school that doesn’t offer scholarships. He had never coached in I-A, had no experience recruiting I-A players and was turned down from the coaching gig at Tulane–a program that has averaged three wins over the past four seasons.
But those who doubted Harbaugh then (and yes I’m talking to you, Jon Wilner) overlooked how big of an asshole Harbaugh can be, particularly when it comes to the gridiron. As the son of a college football coach, Harbaugh has been immersed in the game since birth, and according to those who know him best, is totally consumed and driven by it.
He was a hell of a quarterback himself–he led the Wolverines to a No. 2 finish in 1985-86 and led the nation in efficiency in the same season–making it to the NFL and coming inches away from playing in Super Bowl XXX.
More importantly, over the course of his career, Harbaugh suited up for coaches like Bo “To hell with Notre Dame” Schembechler and Mike “Get your mouth shut” Ditka. Al “Just win, baby” Davis gave him his first shot at coaching in the NFL, and Harbaugh freely admits that his only true passions in life are football and his family–nobody else matters.
At last year’s Orange Bowl, he told the New York Times that for all the complexities in his offensive schemes on the field, he is a pretty simple guy.
“I just concentrate on doing a good job at what I’m doing,” he said. “I’m just very superficial in that way. I’m as transparent as a baggie. There’s nothing deep. You can’t peel back the onion.”
Which is why he didn’t really apologize after giving Schwartz a tight squeeze and back-slap in the traditional postgame exchange on Sunday, instead bordering on the sarcastic in the press conference and making fun of Schwartz by saying that he just gave him a little too hard of a handshake.
But that is what Harbaugh brought to the Farm, and although he has moved on without looking back, the attitude remains. Look at the defense: led by senior linebacker Chase Thomas, a Harbaugh recruit, it’s among the best in the country and plays with a ferocity that Harbaugh would love.
And most of all, look to the future, because while Harbaugh gave Stanford fans a couple of excellent years and an amazing Orange Bowl victory last season, his legacy will continue. Stanford football is back, and while LAL (Life after Luck) might seem like the apocalypse, the world will not end in 2012 (unless 2012 is correct).
I imagine the Harbaugh effect will last for at least five years, during which fans will continue to come to Stanford Stadium because the product on the field is worth it, and David Shaw–incidentally a hell of a coach in his own right, and definitely one of the quickest wits in all of college football–will continue to reap the benefits in the recruiting wars waged all year long.
By then we might not have found another Toby or another Luck, because those are once-in-a-blue-moon kind of players. But we could easily have gotten our hands on two or three Skovs, a Fleener or two and maybe a David DeCastro if we’re lucky.
That is something to be hopeful about, and Jim Harbaugh succeeded where plenty of others failed on the Farm–he brought in a culture of winning and an attitude that had lasting roots. The man can coach–how else do you explain the Alex Smith-led Niners sitting at 5-1–and it’s hard not to miss his fiery exploits and skirmishes with Pete Carroll.
What’s his deal? It’s hard to say, but I’m glad to see Harbaugh trucking right along because what he has planted at Stanford will continue to keep Cardinal fans happy for years to come.
Miles can respect a good handshake, and he can definitely sympathize with Harbaugh’s uncontrollable desire to de-shirt himself in moments of joy. If you feel so bold, request some photos on Twitter @smilesbsmith or at milesbs “at” stanford.edu.