TMG sports has only been in business five days and there’s already a confession to make. With Big Ten football media days starting Monday in Chicago, this seems like a good time to make it. The story has been tucked away in my mind since 2006, just waiting for the proper outlet to be told. My friends and family know the yarn and so do a couple guys at the gym.
There is no other way to set it up other than to just spit it out: Rankman may be responsible for the rise of Jim Harbaugh.
If you love the combative, chest-thumping audaciousness he’s brought to Stanford, the San Francisco 49ers and now, the University of Michigan, you are welcome.
If you hate Harbaugh and every khaki, petulant, satellite-camp thing he stands for, well, for that I apologize.
Ann Arbor owes me (at least) a framed lithograph of Lloyd Carr, while the Southeastern Conference, if it has a problem, can stick it where the Starkville sun doesn’t shine.
This isn’t (just) click-bait hubris coming from an aging sportswriter trying to promote a new college football website, TMGcollegesports, although it is a fantastic bargain at $14.95 per year while the early-bird special still lasts.
For the record: I did not invent the protagonist Harbaugh, the way Mary Shelley did Frankenstein, although there are times I see Harbaugh on TV and still scream: “It’s alive…it’s ALIVE!”
My role was serendipitous, like the mechanical engineer in the 1940s who knocked a coiled spring off his shelf and stumbled upon my favorite childhood toy, “The Slinky.”
Former USC Coach Pete Carroll would not be thrilled knowing my homer-based paws led to that fateful evening in 2007 when, as 42-point under pups, Harbaugh’s first-year Stanford squad stunned King Pete at the Coliseum.
That was just the warm-up act.
Harbaugh made his bones publicly jousting with Carroll as he hijacked USC’s identity, ripping “Student Body Right” straight from the Trojans’ playbook. Some think Harbaugh had as much to do with chasing Carroll to the NFL as Reggie Bush, or the NCAA committee on infractions.
Harbaugh hit the Pac like a clown shot out of a cannon.
It might have all, plausibly, happened without me, but you be the judges.
Fact: I placed a phone call to Harbaugh on Nov. 13 or Nov. 14 of 2006, the week No.1 Ohio State was hosting No. 2 Michigan in a mega showdown in Columbus.
Harbaugh was coaching 1-AA University of San Diego, not to be confused with the University of Notre Dame.
Jim was certainly a known commodity, a former Michigan star and 15-year quarterback in the NFL, yet hardly a “hot” commodity. At the time, in fact, Harbaugh was hiding in a career witness-protection program, reeling from a DUI arrest that likely cost him the San Diego State job given to Chuck Long.
Rankman was looking for a few quotes in advance of the epic Michigan-Ohio State game and fished USD’s football office phone number out of the NCAA’s “Blue Book” directory.
Harbaugh picked the phone up on the first or second ring. He laughed when I asked, “What, no secretary?”
We spoke for a few minutes about the upcoming Michigan game and his old coach, Bo Schembechler.
Harbaugh was equally proud talking about his USD team, which was 10-0 and vying for a 1-AA playoff berth behind star quarterback Josh Johnson.
Then things took off fast. I arrived in Columbus that Friday, the day before the Ohio State-Michigan game, to news Schembechler had died. I ditched my rendered useless Harbaugh quotes and raced to a downtown theatre promoting a show that very night featuring the “Dead Schembechlers,” a parody band. The theatre manager, as I arrived, was up on a ladder pulling the letters off the marquee. The show was canceled. His quotes did make my story.
A few days later I received a call from friend Tim Kawakami, a former L.A. Times colleague who had moved on to the San Jose Mercury News.
Tim, one of the nation’s best and hardest-working columnists, was canvassing ahead of Stanford’s imminent firing of Walt Harris, in the midst of a 1-11 season. Tim asked me for a list of candidates.
The first words out of my mouth were: “Jim Harbaugh.”
I recently contacted Kawakami to confirm my memory of this exchange.
Kawakami: “You said ‘I got the guy, I just talked to the guy.’ You never paused.”
Harbaugh was phone-call fresh in my mind and actually seemed a perfect fit for a program with nothing to lose but more games. It didn’t hurt that Harbaugh had attended Palo Alto High school.
Kawakami waited until Harris was officially canned before running a blog post on Dec. 4, 2006, in which he leaned heavily on athletic director Bob Bowlsby to think provocatively and seek out a “younger, sharper coach with a true ability to connect with smart Stanford kids…Jim Harbaugh.”
Stanford was also considering Norm Chow and Boston College’s Tom O’Brien.
Kawakami then delivered this knock-out postulation regarding Harbaugh:
“He is young enough to embrace Stanford with passion (went to Michigan, a very good school), and realize he can put in 5 to 7 years at the Farm and be a great NFL or Michigan candidate down the line.”
Kawakami was the first writer to float Harbaugh’s name in the Bay Area, “no question,” he confirmed. Having Harbaugh’s name in print likely provided Stanford some professional cover as the school considered a very brazen move.
“I heard people in the (Stanford) building say it was something that was read,” Kawakami said of his story.
Stanford hired Harbaugh on Dec. 19, 2006. The move didn’t win rave reviews on Rotten Coaching Hire Tomatoes, with one of Kawakami’s own Merc News colleagues writing, “For a program in the gutter, this is a huge gamble.”
Harbaugh, of course, turned out to be a million-dollar slot machine pull. He made Stanford a national power, then led the 49ers to a Super Bowl, and now is seemingly starting another dramatic turnaround at Michigan.
Kawakami and I have chuckled about our possible roles in unleashing the wrath of Harbaugh on the masses. Harbaugh certainly would have received other Division 1 offers out of USD, yet it’s also fair to think things could have also worked out very differently had he not landed, at Stanford, at that perfect time.
Tim and I also grudgingly concede Al Davis and Bill Walsh were also Harbaugh advocates—but what did they know about football!?—and also that Bowlsby possibly could have found Jim on his own.
Harbaugh enters the 2016 season having dominated the off-season with his firebrand insistence of staging satellite recruiting camps all over the country, including the deep South. The Southeastern Conference pushed back hard, but lost, and Harbaugh even drew the ire of Alabama Coach Nick Saban, who questioned the NCAA legality of the camps.
Harbaugh responded with a May 31 tweet that excoriated Saban: “Amazing” to me—Alabama broke NCAA rules & now their HC is lecturing us on the possibility of rules being broken at camps. Truly “amazing.”
Taking on Saban may seem like sacrilege to some, yet Harbaugh simply doesn’t care. He is not a politician who takes a Gallup poll before choosing what shirt to wear.
Harbaugh has elevated buzz to record levels while his Michigan team, in year two, may already be ready to compete for the playoff.
He doesn’t play to fools, or to middle ground.
Again, depending on how you feel about that, Rankman is happy to have helped.
Or, sorry to have phoned Harbaugh in November of 2006.
Unlike the “Slinky,” (for fun it’s a wonderful toy), not everyone loves Jim Harbaugh.
But you also can’t argue with this: both are spring loaded and maybe not built to last.