A Cardinal Conversation w/ Jim Harbaugh

We are proud to present (finally!) Part I of an enlightening and entertaining conversation with Stanford Football's third-year Head Coach Jim Harbaugh, conducted at the Arrillaga Center on Friday, February 13, 2009. Read on to learn Coach's view of the current state of the program, and his thoughts on the 2008 season, the much-discussed contract extension situation, and the 2009 recruiting class.

A Cardinal Conversation with Jim Harbaugh - Part I

The following is the first segment of a multi-part conversation with the Stanford Football head coach Jim Harbaugh conducted by "Emeritus" at the Arrillaga Family Sports Center on Friday, February 13, 2009. It had admittedly taken longer than expected to get this long interview transcribed and published, but we believe little has been lost in the delay! 

The Bootleg: We're in Year Three of the "Harbaugh Era". Coach, you're known for your "enthusiasm unknown to mankind"  In fact, you are often referred to as "EUTM" - Are you now just as enthusiastic as you were when you first arrived at Stanford or has it changed, and if so, in what respects?

Jim Harbaugh: Oh, more so now that when we took the job. Even more. We really feel like the foundation has been laid. Everybody knows each other. You not trying to figure out were somebody is coming from or what somebody's agenda is. And that's player-to-coach and coach-to-player as well. We have more fun around each other. You know what the expectations are. There is not so much sizing of people up and wondering. We feel like we know them better, they know us better, and that the future is very bright!

TB: I am thinking of the analogy of "busting the bronco". There were some things about the program that obviously were not in synch with your personal vision, whether it be bad habits or lowered expectations, or lack of process and procedure. Do you now feel you have the team where you want it to be?...

JH: We're chasing excellence...so we're not there yet. It is a thousand things that you're trying to get right. In the end, those thousand little things add up to make all the difference. It's us. It's the guys here doing it. It's the way we do things. It's the guys and ways. It's all of us chasing perfection. We'll never get to perfection, but somewhere along the way we are going to reach excellence.

TB: In the past there was talk among those close to the program that perhaps not all of the kids on the team were really buying in to that "football is important" mentality, that they really loved football and were trying to do something special. Numbers were thrown out, like 35% of the team really cared about football. Do you get a sense that you have raised that percentage? Are you getting closer to 100% buy-in from your guys?

JH: [Deep breath] Yes, to start out it wasn't that way. Guys weren't playing because they had a passion or a love for the game and really to continue to play football there has to be a genuine love for football. Football is the kind of game where if you are going at it half-hearted or if there is a lack of earnestness, you will ultimately be eliminated from football. The more that we identify, and guys identify themselves too - we had several guys come into the office and say "I just don't love it anymore". OK, shake the hand and we move on. 

TB: So you now have guys who truly want to be here? Have you encouraged others to do what they've got to do?

JH: Yes. We have a bunch of guys who really love football. They enjoy the "struggle" of football and ultimately that's what football players get out of football. Sure, the games are a lot of fun. It is the rest of the 353 days...  That's the work. Guys who love football enjoy that work, the struggle, the practicing, the weight-lifting, the sprints, all of the things that go into football. The way it "tests your courage" - there are just so many things about football, the very things we love about it!

TB: You knew coming in that there were some issues you would have to confront, can you name some things that have surprised you since you arrived on campus to lead the program?

JH: Probably the biggest thing right off the bat - there was 'confusion'. In some cases guys had already had three head coaches, and were now getting a fourth in their career. How are we supposed to do things? What is expected of us? And now here comes yet another approach. There were a lot of things that needed to happen - people needed to get on the same page, needed to be singing off of the same song sheet. We just dove into it and started to do it. 

TB: Now with the benefit of hindsight, is there anything you would do differently?

JH: Can't really say that I am aware of anything that we would have done differently...there are a lot of things we figured out we could do better. We learned. In so many areas - the way we practiced in the spring, using the quarter system, the way we recruit, getting to guys a lot earlier. I have an Excel spreadsheet of about 150 things that as we go have changed or been done differently. Things we think are positive or we wouldn't have done them. It is just a running tally. No matter what when you take a new job there's a six-month or a year-long learning curve. Hopefully we'll keep getting better. There is not something where we would say "Man, we wish we wouldn't have done that!"

TB: You made a bunch of changes to the image of the program new traditions like the "Blue Collar Man" and "The Pump", we heard it said that you were worried that kids felt privileged to be at Stanford and perhaps somehow "entitled"? [Note: It was at this point in the conversation that a brief, but spirited discussion took place in which the interviewer tried without success to convince Coach Harbaugh to consider going with a "red-collar" theme rather than promoting ever so slightly our traditional rival's blue.] 

JH: None of us have ever said that we think Stanford people feel "entitled". That was never something that was mentioned. The motivational tool is that we are a blue-collar team. The motivational tool is self-evident, we don't have to talk about it. The second part is that we are all very privileged to be here at Stanford, whether somebody knows that or not. It's a fact. We are privileged to work at this university as coaches, we are privileged to be able to attend this university as students. It is not so much a message as it is a recognition of the people that did the blue collar work to put us in a position to be here. Anybody can go back in their family tree and you're going to find somebody who went to a job that they didn't enjoy. You have the blue-collar shirt, it has your name on it, like "Bill". My dad's father was Bill Harbaugh and he worked as a brakeman on a train. So people like that, they put us in this position where we can go do a job that we enjoy doing and can support our families. What parent or grandparent or great-grandparent wouldn't want someone down the line in their family tree to go to Stanford? It is more out of respect for those people that are in our lives, those that made that sacrifice for us. Therefore, we recognize that we are privileged. Their effort has provided amazing things for our families and for everybody that we are associated with here.

TB: Let's spend a few minutes on last season. Stanford did not play in a post-season bowl game and everyone would have liked better results. Specifically, there were a couple of finishes that were tough for us  - against Oregon and UCLA for example, can you explain the defensive approach at the end of those two games? Was there anything that you would do differently?

JH: [Briefly considering going Jim Everett on me - just kidding!] Well, we'd get 'em stopped! Like anything, in a football game, you look at the last few seconds or critical play and everybody knows that what happens in the rest of the 60 minutes that counts just as much. In knowing that we didn't get stops in the last two minutes - we all take responsibility for that. We take responsibility as a defense for it, we take responsibility as coaches. Offensive players take responsibility that we could have run better routes to prepare our own guys in practice. More attention to two-minute drills in practice - everybody finds a way to share responsibility for not getting it done.

TB: How deeply have we scratched the surface of the Harbaugh/Shaw playbook? We saw some glimpses last year that the gloves might be coming off - what the fans would call more creativity or aggressiveness in play-calling or complexity to the offense…You have obviously worked with complex playbooks during your time in the NFL, are we now at the point in personnel and in knowing the system, that the playbook can be closer to being opened? Lots of tricks left in the bag? Where do things stand?

JH: A: It is always evolving. B: It is always predicated on what your players do best -putting them in position to have success. What this 2009 team can handle, that will show itself - for example, when it comes to the quarterback position, we are going to do things that our quarterback is able to do and do well. We are not going to ask him to do things that he can't do. We want him in a position to be successful. Whether the entire playbook is opened up or not, we will do what he does best. That is just one example and the most significant example, but that goes for everybody that is on the offense - running backs, receivers, tight ends, line, taking advantage of what our players really do well. Putting them in a position to enjoy maximum success. That's the goal. 

TB: There were many long-time observers... and please, please don't take this as a knock on Tavita (Pritchard) since everyone admires his athleticism and leadership skills, but there were many of us who felt true freshman Andrew Luck should have gotten an opportunity to play last season based on the observation that our quarterback play wasn't consistently productive enough to lead to an effective offense - in the minds of the fans, not saying what the coaching staff was thinking after reviewing film... Can you help the fans understand what your thought process was there...there was a point in the season, and it is never the quarterback alone, but we were struggling to score points, we weren't getting adequate play out of the quarterback position, whether it was Forcier or Loukas or anybody...Was there a temptation to bring Andrew in and how close to that did things come and did you ever regret in hindsight not having brought him in?

JH: There was a constant evaluation of what quarterback would give us the best opportunity to win. Especially going into training camp early our mindset was we've got senior, experienced quarterbacks here that we feel are winners, that are capable of leading this team, better than a freshman would be able to do.  And then, Andrew's progress as a mature guy, both mentally and physically, as we went through training camp was very impressive, and it continues to be. There was a thought - is this what is best for our football team. Is it best to play Andrew Luck right now? First, second, third game - after the fourth game, it was over. There was definitely a period of four, five weeks there with the way he was progressing, with the way Andrew was demonstrating his ability both mentally and physically - there was a daily evaluation in considering playing him. Was it better for our football team - that is the question we kept coming back to and it was that the more senior quarterbacks were better for our football team, gave us a better chance to win football games. After the Washington game - we had decided after the fifth game in which Andrew had not played in a game, that he would be redshirted from that point on. Just to be clear on which game that was.

TB: Now, you are going to have a two-part spring practice schedule again, you like that format, and you are having a Monday Night spring game. That is maybe not ideal for families and kids wanting to attend the game, is it? Is there a method to your madness?

JH: The decision to have it on a Monday night was based strictly on how the days fell. You have so many days to get your fifteen practices in by NCAA rule. We used the quarter system to our advantage. There is a study week and a finals week and the NCAA discounts those . With the amount of days that we could have spring practice and split it like we are doing, to give us as many days in between practices so we wouldn't have to go back-to-back-to-back days - to have the spring game on a weekend - It works best for us to have it on a Monday night. And I think it will be pretty fun: 'Monday Night Football'

TB: But isn't there at least a partial sacrifice then on the marketing side? I guess if done right, it could have some positives...

JH: Yeah. Monday night is a great night for football! And the understanding is - that it works best for the student-athlete, that they will not have to go "back-to-back" as many times. The objective is to keep those off days in between and have as few back-to-backs as possible.

TB: Coach, let's talk a little bit about your ongoing contract extension situation and rather than go into all the details of what impacted what, let me ask you this - Do you understand the anxiety fans have expressed over the whole issue of your contract extension and what it means in terms of the fans' desire to maintain a measure of continuity in the program. The media does one thing, but the fans are rather understandably concerned. People like what you are doing here, they want to know you want to be here. You have come out and said "I am 100% committed to Stanford University", but then at the end of the press releases we see from Media Relations, they are punctuated with "....at this time." For fans, that takes a little bit of the bite out of your statement. It is because people care and they want reciprocal love from the staff. Do you appreciate that fans are concerned with the variety rumors and reports of interview with NFL teams whether it was the Jets, the Rams, how many times you may or may not have interviewed... That does indicate to people that you might have an interest in doing something else. In fairness, we have seen nothing that shows you fail to appreciate how special this place is and most of us feel you deserve fair compensation and security, but that limbo of the contract extension and its unfortunate occurrence leading up to National Letter of Intent signing day caused some serious anxiety - do you think it had much impact on the 2009 recruiting class? Is there anything that could have been done differently or is it just the way the world is these days - guess I should let you talk now....

JH: I will try to answer all of those questions, but let's just say this - We are going to be here a long time. We are fightin' to be here a long time. Very happy here. Emotionally-, physically-, mentally-invested into this job. The thought of leaving is just not something that even takes hold in our brains. So as far as the phone ringing about an NFL job - we do have wives, kids, you feel like you owe it to go back to your wife and say "We are going to stay at Stanford. That is where my heart is. That is what we want to do", but you also like to say to her "We looked at it, but this is where we want to be." 

TB: In a way, you get held to an entirely different standard than anyone else in the job market. People may like their job, but will always listen to other offers.  Seems like a coach gets help to a different standard because of contract and because of the emotional element..   

JH: Yes, in the coaching profession there is that window in the annual cycle of the year when all of that stuff occurs. And of course there are prospects that want to know who their coach is going to be, if their coach is going to be there for their whole four or five years. That certainly came up during the recruiting process and it was addressed. It was asked and answered. Both individually and in group situations, we assured them one-on-one, like we are doing now, that we would be here. We didn't swear to God on it. It says in The Bible that you don't swear to God on anything. You just don't have that right. But yeah, we were just speaking from the heart, telling them where our heart is and that is here, at Stanford.

TB: College or pro? If the money and security were equal, is it your ambition in the near-term, say the next five to seven years, to be an NFL head coach?    

JH: No. My ambition is to be here. To build a program that will be lasting, 15 to 20 years. 

TB: Now you are talkin, Coach! People love hearing that from you, Jim, they want to believe that so badly, but no one can really say for sure, right?

JH: Who can? Who has got a crystal ball in their life? If someone comes in with $10 million dollars and says "go bury it in the back yard and come coach our team"... who's to say what you are going to do?

TB: But on the flipside, if we were to go 2-10 next year and followed it with 1-11, is anyone going to stand behind your contract? 

JH: That is why we are saying - we are fighting to keep our jobs. Nothing in my brain is even conceptualizing the idea of leaving it. We love it here. This is a good thing and we know we can build a champion here. And we are having a lot of fun doing it.

TB: There was some perception spread by the media that you were trying perhaps to gain some leverage by "flirting" with the NFL, was that all just reckless speculation? 

JH: Yes. The thing we are all aware of here is that there is a lot of pressure on the Athletic Department right now, financially with the current economy, and we just don't think it is time to focus on our personal finances. What we are really motivated to do is fill up the stadium, go to a BCS bowl game and alleviate the financial pressures on the Athletic Department.

TB: So as far as recruits, do you believe in your heart of hearts, that the contract situation significantly affected the '09 recruiting class? 

JH: No, every recruit that came here and saw Stanford, especially early, they were locked in. They had the same or at least similar emotional tie that we have here as coaches. We didn't lose anybody that committed here to Stanford. I can't think of any guy that was ultimately affect by rumors.  There were some guys that didn't come, there are some guys that didn't get admitted to school, some that wanted to go elsewhere, but there isn't anyone that comes to mind that didn't come here because of any uncertainty in the coaching situation.

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