USA Today Sports

USC Coaching Search Candidate John Harbaugh

As the Head Coaching Hot Board heats up, we examine each leading candidate in depth with analysis on why they would fit at USC, and why they may not.

The USC head coaching search is headed in its first week as the Trojans come off a 31-41 loss to rival Notre Dame.

With many teams, college and pro, in midseason, the interest levels of top candidates is still difficult to gauge. The Baltimore Ravens website produced a “nothing to see here” blog entry last week stating head coach John Harbaugh was not considering the USC head coaching job.

But with the Ravens off to a 1-5 start for the first time in franchise history and Harbaugh having some superficial contact with USC during the Trojans’ last coaching search, he remains a candidate for the job.

Harbaugh is 82-46 overall in Baltimore and 10-5 in the post season with a Super Bowl XLVII victory over the San Francisco 49ers, who were led by his younger brother, Jim. John Harbaugh is a different coach than his brother.

John, relaxed and easy going, is often described as a “players coach” for his even-keel approach to the game. He is a leader and a motivator, but not in a divisive manner which wears on his players and his assistant coaches.

“Do whatever you can to help others be their best and see where that takes you,” says Harbaugh. “But, it really shouldn’t be about where it takes you. It’s where it takes us. What do we have a chance to accomplish together? Can we build something together that is special and has a chance to last?”


Harbaugh, 53-years-old, is affable, yet his experience in dealing with unique off field issues would prepare him well for college football.

In 2000, All Pro linebacker Ray Lewis was involved in a murder trial which cast a shadow over the Ravens organization. Last year, Ray Rice was released from the Ravens and later suspended indefinitely by the NFL in a nasty domestic violence incident. This past summer, the Ravens were also indirectly involved in Deflategate.

Emails from the Indianapolis Colts to the league office revealed that the Ravens actually tipped the Colts off about potential football tampering at Gillet Stadium in New England. Indeed, John Harbaugh has dealt with his fair share of distractions in big markets and handled each issue without reproach.

Specifically in the Ray Rice incident, there were some close to Harbaugh who felt he was hung out to dry by the Ravens’ management. Harbaugh still proved to be the face of the franchise, providing stability, sensibility and accountability.

Sanctions are over at USC, and the rebuilding has begun. A program with a storied tradition, USC football doesn’t have to reinvent itself, but it can no longer attempt to build on to the legacy of Pete Carroll with more blocks for the Jenga tower. To an extent, that is editorializing the state of the program, but USC has been shooting from the hip with a slew of program derailing events in recent years.

Pete Carroll had a philosophy to always compete, which was later developed as his Win Forever concept. That philosophy was bigger than a 12 game schedule. Harbaugh himself has a life philosophy for his players about winning. He lives by the philosophy of (W.I.N.) What’s Important Now. The tenants are, Be Honest, Do One More Thing, Learn To Follow, Take Care Of Today, Be An Encourager And Be Yourself.

“Be yourself because everybody else is taken,” says Harbaugh.

USC football players and personnel have heard too much of one thing and seen another in recent years. USC needs an honest, original approach moving forward.


Harbaugh is from a football family, with his dad (Jack) and brother both having been successful college coaches. That factors in with hiring good assistant coaches and using connections to self evaluate a coaching staff.

Schematically, Harbaugh doesn’t hold to any single defense or offense. In fact, Harbaugh has never been a defensive or offensive coordinator in his coaching career. He has been a special team coordinator, which one could argue, has inherent upside.

Unlike a defensive guru or offensive genius as head coach, Harbaugh won’t scare off any good coordinators by insisting on calling his own plays or dictating what scheme USC runs. Speaking of scheme, the Ravens run what many USC fans call a “5-2” defense, although it’s really a hybrid version of a 3-4 defense.

Under Harbaugh, the Ravens have run several different fronts, including some traditional 4-3 looks. What the Ravens use now is a 3-4, which gap wise, is actually a 4-3 under. This is what Ed Oregon and Clancy Pendergast ran at USC in 2013. USC’s current defensive scheme is two gap based and more in line with a traditional 3-4 front.

On offense, Baltimore has run through a myriad of offensive coordinators and schemes, although each not venturing too far from the single back pro-style offense. The Ravens set franchise records last season with 409 points scored and 5,838 yards with Gary Kubiak as offensive coordinator.

Under Marc Trestman, Baltimore has struggled. But when it comes to NFL offensive playbooks, less is more in college no matter who the coach is. Harbaugh was a defensive backs coach with the Philadelphia Eagles, so he is associated more with being a defensive coach at heart and his teams take on that personality.


As mentioned, Harbaugh’s personality and presence would give USC instant credibility on the recruiting trail. That big, fat Super Bowl ring wouldn’t go unnoticed either.

Recruiting wise, Harbaugh’s ties are mainly in the Midwest. While his brother coached at San Diego University before moving on to Stanford, John’s experience in college is made up entirely of Midwestern schools like Western Michigan, Pitt and Cincinnati.

That is a negative as Harbaugh will beholden by some good assistant coaching hires to set him the the right direction on the recruiting trail. Harbaugh shouldn't have many problems selling his brand of football to recruits, but evauating high school athletes as opposed to college athletes is something Harbaugh hasn't done in almost a decade. Granted, this was not an issue for Pete Carroll, who relished the opportunity to pick and choose the players he wanted on his team freely without the restrictions of a draft. John's brother, Jim, has certainly proven to be a very good judge of talent at the college level.


Harbaugh won’t be fired by the Ravens this season regardless of how many games they lose. He will have to want to coach at USC and make that move willingly. Furthermore, already swinging a $7 million price tag, USC will have to flex its booster muscle and prove the program is all-in with this next hire. Only Alabama's Nick Saban and John's brother, Jim, are in the $7 million club at the college level.

College football is full of winks, nods and unscrupulous recruiting tactics. Harbaugh is all about sportsmanship and integrity, so that aspect of the job may scare him away from college football altogether. That’s ignoring the toll recruiting takes on a coach’s free time, although head coaches are not on the road for May evaluations and can only have one in-home visit per recruit.

Harbaugh has never coached in the Pac-12, never been a head coach in college nor has he any current assistant coaches on his staff with extensive ties to the West Coast. That’s a potential hurdle in recruiting and a whole new staff will take time to gel regardless of how good each coach is individually.

Without carrying an offensive or defensive coordinating title in the past, Harbaugh doesn’t really have his own system from a schematic standpoint. With there being more turnover with college football coaching staffs, USC would be at the mercy of its playbook changing every few years as coordinators leave for head coaching jobs. That in itself could hurt the continuity and make it more challenging to string national championship runs together.

Finally, even if USC was to lure Harbaugh away from the pro game, there is no guarantee he would not jump back to the league for a shot at another Super Bowl. Although, winning one already makes that less likely and every coach USC hires has the potential of leaving for the NFL if they return the Trojans to the national championship hunt on an annual basis. Top Stories