Coaching Search Final Stretch

14 days after Walt Harris was fired, we're still swimming in a sea of uncertainty over the actions and intentions of Bob Bowlsby's search for the next Stanford Football head coach. A list of the five finalists leaked several days ago, which gains credence as time passes. We dive into this candidate quintet, look at their pros and cons and discuss the interview committee personnel and activities.

The questions of the day for the Stanford Football head coaching search, now precisely two weeks old, are "who?" and "when?"  The former is more difficult, so we will first jump to the latter.  The Bootleg communicated yesterday with Stanford athletic director Bob Bowlsby, who generously updated us via email.

"I think we are still on path for something before mid-week, but these processes have many moving parts and some of them are impossible to predict from a timetable standpoint," Bowlsby wrote.

Mid-week can mean anything from Tuesday to Thursday, which leaves open the possibility of an announcement anytime in the next several days.  Moving parts would seem to speak to negotiations between Bowlsby and his intended hire, rather than his deliberations on who among his final candidates should be his first choice.  Negotiations may be about compensation, but in taking the Stanford job on the cusp of five losing seasons and publicized questions about standards and institutional support, you can bet a coach wants more in place than money before he takes the leap.

Bowlsby said in his press conference this morning 14 days ago that the search would take about two weeks, so the timeframe was clear and has yet to surprise us.  The short list of favored candidates from which Bowlsby has worked has been what has sent us through a ringer in the interim.  While the favorites, interviews and snubbed hiring attempts have been transparent in many head coaching searches in college football, Bowlsby has kept his candidates and actions under a hermetic seal.

Given how Stanford found, interviewed and hired Bowlsby - with nary a leak or even a hint of his candidacy - earlier this year, we have not been surprised.  Maybe we in the business of reporting on these matters have been inconvenienced and at times annoyed, but we have not been surprised.  What astonished us the middle of last week was a leak that named the top five candidates in this search.  The leak came from somebody close to the search process, who had direct information rather than the second-hand rumor and speculation that has fueled much of what we have discussed these past couple weeks.

To be honest, I sat in disbelief and with great skepticism for several days after learning of the leak.  How could Bob Bowlsby keep things so magnificently hidden from us, and then allow the Holy Grail of this reporting process to slip?  In all seriousness, I convinced myself for two or three days that Bowlsby deliberately fed that leak as a move of disinformation.  His actions, including conducting two of his biggest interviews in randomly located airports, have been careful and clever enough to make me believe he could be this calculating.  However, the absence of any public reports of newly interviewed candidates in the last few days and the absence of any new names surfacing from my sources has softened my skepticism.  It may be difficult to believe, but the simplest thing to believe is that the list of five was an honest and accurate one.

In alphabetical order, that list was:

Jim Fassel - Most recently the offensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens, fired during this current season.  His previous and most recognized tenure was as the head coach of the New York Giants for seven years.  He was an assistant for five years at Stanford (1979-83), where he worked John Elway.  His last college coaching job came in the 1980s at Utah, where he was head coach.

Pros:  Easily the longest in the tooth of the group, with the experiences and connections that would net an incredible coaching staff.  Though he ultimately was fired after seven years by the Giants, that tenure and a Super Bowl places him in the upper few percentile of all-time NFL head coaches.  Dropping the John Elway name (who wouldn't surprise us appearing on Fassel's staff, should he have tasted enough of selling cars in Colorado by now) and his many stories and successes in the NFL would be powerful for recruiting, even if he is not the youngest and most vibrant coach on this list.  Considering the stops he has made and the likelihood that he his NFL coaching has run its course, Fassel would likely stick at Stanford for a long time and not try to use The Farm as a stepping stone.

Cons:  Those many years and experiences could also be seen as a negative, with nearly two decades of time passing since he was last in the college game.  Look what happened with Bill Walsh during his time away from college, between his first stint and his second as Stanford's head coach.  Does Fassel understand or have the energy that is uniquely required for coaching, motivating and recruiting kids?  Fassel also has one college head coaching data point, and it was a losing one at Utah.

Jim Harbaugh - Currently the head coach at University of San Diego, a Division I-AA school that is one of only a few who operate without scholarships.  He played 15 years before that in the NFL.  Harbaugh has been a coach for just three years, but during the latter part of his NFL playing career, he was an NCAA-certified (but non-paid) assistant under his father at Western Kentucky.  That gave him an additional eight years of experience recruiting and offensive gameplan consulting.  His father was a Stanford assistant in the early 1980s, during which time he attended Palo Alto High School across the street from campus.

Pros:  He fits the up-and-comer mold that excites Stanford fans, feeling that they would land a bright and rising star like they did with Bill Walsh.  His NFL playing experience would play well with recruits.  Harbaugh has turned a program that had no record of success into Mid-Major National Champions in his second and third years.  Unlike Fassel, his college coaching record is that of a winner (29-6).  He runs a potent offense and by all accounts has positive coaching characteristics as a leader and motivator.  He would bring energy to the practice field, locker room and recruiting.  Harbaugh reportedly was offered the Tulane job but told them he wanted to wait on Stanford - coupled with his experience in high school, this suggests Stanford would be an important place to him and not just the best job he can land this winter.

Cons:  He has won a lot of games each year, and he has done so without scholarships.  But keep in mind that USD plays in the Pioneer Football League, which is comprised of non-scholarship I-AA programs.  Those games plus the occasional tilt with an Ivy League opponent provide the bulk of the Toreros' schedule.  Do not get the idea that he is beating Division I scholarship players each week with his walk-ons.  Also, does an up-and-comer stick around after he achieves enough success at Stanford?  He is a Michigan alumnus, and the specter of his moving to that putative dream job would hang like a dark cloud at some point over his Cardinal tenure.  With three years at USD, he also has the least coaching experience on paper of these candidates (if you don't put much weight in his non-paid help to his dad while he still tossed the pigskin in the League).  Is it a red flag to be in the same company as North Texas and Tulane in targeting your head coach?  He reportedly interviewed badly with Iowa State, which cost him that job.

Bobby Hauck - Also currently a DI-AA head coach, at Montana.  Unlike the Toreros, the Grizzlies do offer scholarships.  Prior to his four years as the head man in Missoula, Hauck was an assistant at several stops that followed Rick Neuheisel: UCLA, Colorado and Washington.

Pros:  Also a winner, with a 41-13 record in the last four seasons and four straight Division I-AA playoff appearances.  He was 12-2 this year, with a narrow 19-17 loss in the semifinals.  Hauck is the most experienced college coach of this quintet, with his combined assistant and head coaching duties.  Though he is at a I-AA now, his stops as an assistant included major West Coast programs.  A native of the Treasure State and an alumnus of Montana, there is no logical place where he would dream of coaching after he has left Missoula.  He is young, has energy and is a proven success as a recruiter at every stop.  In pure recruiting acumen, he may top this list.  He has some of the up-and-comer qualities of Harbaugh, but is seasoned with much more coaching experience.

Cons:  Unlike Harbaugh, Hauck walked into a winning program and simply kept the ship moving.  Montana had been in the I-AA playoffs 10 straight years before he took the reins.  Without the backdrop of losing, it is hard to gauge how much of the Grizzlies' success the past four years can be attributed to him versus the program built by his predecessors.  There are also murmurs from persons who watch Montana that Hauck has some playcalling that can be questioned.  Similar things were said about Walt Harris when he came from Pittsburgh, and they proved to hold some merit.  That does not prove Hauck to be liable in this area, but it does spook some in the Cardinal community still smarting from this 1-11 season.  Maybe most noteworthy is his label as a Neuheisel protégé.  While that bodes well in recruiting, media and fan relations, is a red flag in the "integrity" department which Bowlsby cited two weeks ago?  The incident last week where Hauck told his athletic director he was on the road for recruiting but then was revealed to be interviewing with Stanford in the Salt Lake City airport sounds eerily similar to the Neuheisel incident with the San Francisco 49ers while he was at Washington.  Hauck is the only member of this list with no Stanford tie we can discern, which works against his "getting" Stanford or wanting to stay for a long time.

James Lofton - He is the wide receivers coach for the San Diego Chargers, where he has spent the past five years.  Prior to the position, he had a career in broadcasting as an NFL analyst.  Lofton played 16 years in the NFL and was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2003.  Son David Lofton just completed his fifth year playing at Stanford.  The elder Lofton is also a former Stanford player.

Pros:  He has perhaps the loftiest of football credentials, as a Hall of Famer who played in three Super Bowls.  He also set a Stanford record at the time with 12 touchdown catches in his breakout senior season under Bill Walsh.  While his complete absence of college coaching sticks out like a sore thumb, Lofton did make countless trips to The Farm the past five years to take in practices while his son David was on the team.  You may have thought him just an interested parent, or perhaps helping scout talent for the Chargers, but Lofton took careful notes through his observations and discussions with coaches and players on the program.  He has never recruited, but he experienced the process closely as a parent through both his sons.  We don't have much knowledge of his personality or demeanor, being out of the media spotlight as a receivers coach in San Diego, but he would bring credibility to any conversation with a recruit.  We also believe that he has positive offensive and coaching influences, which include not only Walsh but also lean heavily on Marv Levy.  Participating in the current explosive offense in San Diego is also a positive.  It has been said that his lack of ambition as a college coach works against him, but it may indeed be that he has no aspirations to coach in college other than Stanford - that would not be a bad thing.

Cons:  He has no direct experience in college football other than as a player.  It would be rolling the dice to hand the controls to somebody who has spent his entire professional livelihood outside of the college game.  His playing and coaching experience is on the offensive side of the ball, but is he an offensive mind?  Not yet having taken the controls of a program in so much as a coordinating position, we have no evidence.  We also have no evidence of his being inspiring or remarkably motivating.  Another area where we are uncertain is the staff he could assemble and bring with him, with such a limited breadth of coaching experience.  Not a true disqualifier at all, but it would be strange for him to coach against son Daniel Lofton in the Big Game the next few years.

Tom Williams - Linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator at San Jose State.  Also a former Stanford player and assistant coach, in addition to coaching stops at Washington and Hawaii.

Pros:  Every person you ask who came in contact with Williams during his playing days at Stanford, or since, raves about him and would run through a wall to support him.  The Cardinal community would rally around the hire, and he would easily relate and inspire Stanford's players.  He was a strong recruiter while an assistant in the Buddy Teevens years - he found Pannel Egboh, found and landed Ekom Udofia and Udeme Udofia and was the lead recruiter that landed Mark Bradford and Michael Okwo.  Bradford was dead and lost after the 2-9 season of 2002 before Williams stunningly resurrected the Cardinal's chances and then upset USC, Notre Dame and LSU.  Williams is a Stanford man through and through, and he would bleed and die for the Cardinal.  His recruiting energy and ability placed as the head coach would be formidable.  It goes without saying that this is his dream job, and he would stay as long as Stanford would have him.

Cons:  Participating in the success of San Jose State this season works in his favor, but he is on the defensive side of the ball, which has been not completely impressive the past two years.  The offense has had the sizzle.  In the big picture, Stanford has made its bed through the years with offensively superior football and made most of its football reputation on that side of the ball.  It would be a departure and leap of faith to hire a defensive coach.  Williams would have to present a staff to Bowlsby with an offensive coordinator and philosophy that inspires serious confidence.  He unfortunately damaged his chances two years ago when he left Stanford when Teevens was fired and Harris was hired.  Behind the scenes, he left a bad impression on some people who are still at Stanford and who have Bowlsby's ear.  It may take time, olive branches and more success on his résumé before Williams is ripe for this job.

None of the above jump out as the perfect candidate.  Each carries a significant question or apparent hole in their resume, either through lack of experience or losing.  Each carries an upside.  How you balance those factors probably reflects your own personal feelings on what qualifies the next Cardinal head coach, rather than the specific résumés of these candidates.

The only two final round interviews with Bowlsby we have been able to substantiate are Lofton and Harbaugh.  They took place on Thursday and Friday, and we are not certain which took place when or where.  It has been reported, and now frequently repeated, that Harbaugh was on Thursday and Lofton was on Friday.  A couple sources last week told us the opposite.  What we do know is that Bowlsby assembled an interview committee immediately upon firing Harris, which was kept under wraps for the first week-plus of the search.  The committee includes administrators from the Stanford athletic department, administrators from relevant arms of the University and two Stanford Football players:  T.C. Ostrander and Trevor Hooper.  Those players present a perspective from each side of the ball, plus at least two years each of experience under the last two head coaches.  They understand some of what does not work at Stanford and can help sniff that out.  Ostrander also has the most at stake with this hire, as Stanford's fifth-year senior quarterback in 2007.  Hooper has too much integrity to allow a bias, but it is worth noting that he is best friends and roommates with David Lofton.

The committee jumped on a plane and conducted last Thursday's interview on the road.  They were spotted back on campus on Friday continuing the process.  Bowlsby was in Omaha (Neb.) on Saturday for the women's volleyball NCAA Finals, and we have no evidence yet of any final-round interviews conducted Saturday or beyond.  That included a check late last week with sources close to both Fassel and Williams, who reported no second interview yet scheduled with Bowlsby.

With Lofton and Harbaugh the only two interviews we have been able to confirm in this final stage, it has been said by several people that they are the final two candidates.  We heard from somebody on Saturday that it was down to Hauck and Harbaugh.  Others say Fassel and Harbaugh.  Some cling to the hope of Texas Tech head coach Mike Leach, who reportedly was the candidate with whom Bowlsby met in Las Vegas last Tuesday.  If we knew for sure who to believe, we would tell you.

Without any of the five putative candidates yet declaring their "withdrawal" from the search, it is hard to completely remove any of them from possibility.  Hauck is the dark horse of the bunch, considering that sources close to him are the hardest to come by.  If the New York Times had not printed last week that he interviewed with Bowlsby in Salt Lake City, we might still not have his name anywhere on our radar.  It is not necessarily telling of his chances, but it is our guess that Hauck was on Bowlsby's short list he carried when he left Iowa.  The former Hawkeyes athletic director said two weeks ago that his short list at Stanford contained some names he had on that list at Iowa, but also new names that fit Stanford.  There is not much reason to believe that Hauck would have come just in the last few months to Bowlsby's consciousness.  But our bet is that somehow, somewhere late last week, Bowlsby interviewed Hauck.

Do not take Bowlsby's communication with the Montana athletic director to suggest that Hauck is about to be hired.  That may play out, but it is more logically a consequence of the athletic director's surprise at the Times report last week.  Bowsbly could have followed that up with communication as a professional courtesy, or the Montana athletic director may have come to Bowlsby looking for information when he was caught unaware.

We expect the "moving parts" to stop moving in the next day or two.  The guessing game will move to the rearview mirror, and the obsession with the process will soon be replaced with scrutiny of the actual head coach and his actions on the job.  That will be the fun part of this winter, and it cannot come soon enough.

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