Loyalty no longer exists in big-time college football and that's a shame because Jim Harbaugh owes a lot to Stanford.
In November 2005, Harbaugh was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving after running a stop sign in Encinitas, Calif. Harbaugh, coach of the Division I-AA San Diego Toreros at the time, was being mentioned as a candidate for several major-college level jobs that were expected to open that fall, including San Diego State.
Harbaugh screwed up and he knew it.
"The police were doing their jobs," he told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "I feel I've had a lifetime of good social decision-making. This was a bad one. I'll vow right here and now it will never happen again. People who know me know this is not an indication of my character."
It would take another year before Division I-A teams would come calling. There was Iowa State, North Texas and Tulane. All took a look and passed. Then came Stanford, which had fired Walt Harris after a disastrous 1-11 season. Athletic director Bob Bowlsby took a chance and gave Harbaugh his big break in December 2006.
"For a program in the gutter, this is a huge gamble," wrote Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News.
The headstrong Harbaugh had to fight a big war with a little stick, but he wasted no time going after the establishment, telling Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports.com in March 2007 that Pete Carroll would be gone after coaching the Trojans for one more season.
"He'll be there one more year. That's what I've heard. I heard it inside the staff," Harbaugh said.
Carroll fired back. "If he's going to make statements like that, he ought to get his information right," he told the Los Angeles Times. "And if he has any questions about it he should call me."
Harbaugh didn't back down. "But we bow to no man. We bow to no program here at Stanford University," he said.
In May 2007, Harbaugh ripped into Michigan, his alma mater.
"Michigan is a good school and I got a good education there," he said, "but the athletic department has ways to get borderline guys in and, when they're in, they steer them to courses in sports communications. They're adulated when they're playing, but when they get out, the people who adulated them won't hire them."
Jamie Morris, one of Harbaugh's teammates at Michigan, said their friendship dissolved after the comments.
"We said, 'We're not friends anymore,' " Morris said. " 'You lose my number, I lose yours.' "
Most coaches would have been muzzled by their athletic director, but Bowlsby let Harbaugh do his thing.
Harbaugh could talk a good game, but could he coach one? His first team staggered to a 1-3 start before an Oct. 6, 2007 trip to USC. The Trojans had won 35 consecutive games at home and Carroll certainly wanted to teach Harbaugh and his team a lesson. Sportsbooks established USC as a 41-point favorite.
Stanford did the unthinkable, scoring 17 points in the fourth quarter and stunning USC, 24-23. That game made a 4-8 season.
In 2008, the Cardinal started 5-4, then lost their last three to finish 5-7. Nonetheless, it was clear Stanford was about to break through. Booster John Arrillaga, one of the most prominent landowners in Silicon Valley, was impressed enough to have a private luxury bathroom and shower added to Harbaugh's office before the start of the 2009 season. The cost was between $50,000 and $70,000.
"It was something I'd asked for," Harbaugh said. "It cuts down on drag."
Drag as in drag time. It was, after all, about 20 steps down the hallway to the nearest bathroom. The nearest shower was two floors down.
Then came the 2009 season, with Stanford finishing 8-5 behind the bruising running of Toby Gerhart, who was the Heisman Trophy runner-up. Harbaugh had the team and he stuck it to Carroll and USC once again, deciding to go for two with a 48-21 lead with 6:47 to play at the L.A. Coliseum. The try was stopped, but Stanford got the ball one last time and scored again to make the final 55-21. The bludgeoning has become known as the "double nickles" game.
Carroll was enraged. When he met Harbaugh at midfield for the postgame handshake, he asked, "What's your deal? What's your deal?"
Harbaugh retorted, "What's your deal?"
In April 2010, the Stanford athletic department used the exchange to sell tickets. The "What's your deal?" package consisted of tickets to last fall's USC game plus two other games. The marketing idea was reportedly hatched by — you guessed it — Harbaugh.
This past season, Stanford beat USC again and finished the regular season 11-1, losing only to Oregon. On Monday night, a nation got to see Harbaugh's creation demolish Virginia Tech, 40-12, in the Orange Bowl.
The smart money has Harbaugh leaving The Farm after four seasons, yet there was this comment he made to Dodd in 2007. "Perhaps the reason it's been up and down here [at Stanford] is that no one has stayed here 20 years."
But he bristled Monday night when asked if this was his last game as Cardinal coach.
"Give me a break," he said. "You know, have some respect for the game. It's about the performance tonight of these players and I love them. Let's talk about them. It's all about now."
The Stanford-Harbaugh gamble paid off. The school took a chance on him when no other team would. It didn't meddle as he shaped the program. As a result, Harbaugh is now the hottest coaching property in football, college or pro.
It's a relationship that has worked. Harbaugh might not be as lucky at his next stop.