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Rebuilding Project Project – Case Study #4: Stanford

There is probably no better current benchmark for rebuilding jobs than the one done by Jim Harbaugh at Stanford from 2007-2010, a turnaround that shows few signs of slowing down despite Harbaugh's move to the NFL.

Jim Harbaugh had plenty of reasons to cheer when he was Stanford's coach
Jim Harbaugh had plenty of reasons to cheer when he was Stanford's coach
Ezra Shaw

Our fourth case study takes a look at another turnaround that most here are quite familiar with, and coincidentally enough also involves a Bay Area program - Stanford, and the job Jim Harbaugh did in turning them into a powerhouse. Harbaugh is often cited by Husky fans as a benchmark for his rebuilding job, and with good reason - the Cardinal, much like the Huskies, had just gone through one of the roughest five year stretches in their history (only the span from 1958-62 was worse, and by just a couple percentage points). Prior to that rough patch, they had actually had a run of moderate success, so this stretch of futility was not the norm. The tough patch was culminated in what has generally been regarded as one of the worst teams of the Pac-10 era, the Walt Harris-led 2006 squad that went 1-11, with their only win coming over our Huskies in the famous "Suddenly Senior" game. Harbaugh then proceeded over the course of his four years on The Farm to transform the Cardinal into the biggest, toughest team in the conference and one of the best in the country.

While most fans think of Stanford as a historically mediocre program hampered by their high academic standards, they actually were one of the stronger programs in the sport in the early years. From their first team in 1891 through 1905 (when the school opted to play rugby instead), and then again from 1919 when they started up football again until 1936, they suffered only two losing seasons - in 1899 when they went 2-5-2 and in 1922 when they went 4-5. In that stretch they featured three legendary coaches: Walter Camp, Fielding Yost and Pop Warner. Under Warner, they earned three Rose Bowl invitations, and his 1926 squad that finished 10-0-1 was ranked by the Dickenson system as that year's National Champions (this was before the AP & UPI polls had started). Warner's successor Claude Thornhill went to three more Rose Bowls in his first three seasons (with the 1934 squad being ranked #2 in the AP's final poll), but then the wheels fell off over the next four years and he gave way to another legendary coach in Clark Shaughnessy who promptly led Stanford to their first unbeated, untied season and another Rose Bowl, and they again finished #2 in the final AP poll. He left after two seasons at the helm, and after a short stretch of mediocre play, Chuck Taylor (no, not that Chuck Taylor) boosted them to another Rose Bowl and three top-20 finishes. They then suffered their worst stretch of football over the next six years before John Ralston took the reins. He slowly righted the ship, and by his 8th season he finally got Stanford back in the Rose Bowl, riding the arm of Heisman Trophy winner Jim Plunkett. They would return to the Rose Bowl the next season as Don Bunce stepped in for Plunkett, and Ralston opted to cash in on his success and move on to the NFL (a pattern that would repeat itself in coming years). The program remained above-average under Jack Christiensen, but were unable to return to the Rose Bowl. Bill Walsh then got his start as a head coach, spending two strong seasons in Palo Alto before moving on to the 49ers. The Cardinal then struggled under Paul Wiggin, and weren't much better under Jack Elway and Dennis Green. Walsh made a highly-publicized return to The Farm and had immediate success his first year back, going 10-3, but struggled the next two seasons which led to his retirement. Some guy named Ty Willingham then took over and led a moderate revival of the program, notching four bowl game invites in his seven years there, including their first return to the Rose Bowl in 27 years. When Willingham left for Notre Dame, Buddy Teevens took over and the program struggled mightily, and he was let go after just three years. In came Walt Harris off of a successful stint at Pittsburgh, but things only got worse and he would last just two years. Enter Jim Harbaugh.

Harbaugh was primarily known from his long NFL career, mostly as a QB with the Chicago Bears. When he finally called it quits, he joined the staff of his dad, a long-time coach who was at Western Kentucky. After eight seasons there, he became the QB coach for the Raiders for two seasons before he got his opportunity to head his own program - the FCS level San Diego Toreros. Three very successful seasons there got him on the radar of the Stanford AD, and when they struck out on their preferred candidates to replace Harris, they offered the job to Harbaugh.

Harbaugh had an immediate impact on the program, as his ultra-competitive and confident personality began to shape the team. That competitiveness and confidence also manifested itself in brash, controversial comments to the press - he gained notoriety just a few months into the job when he declared that Pete Carroll only had one more year left at USC (the opening volley in what has become one of the great coaching rivalries in the sport). Harbaugh was also laying the foundation for greater success with his recruiting. While his initial 2007 class was ranked just 43rd in the country by, it featured such future mainstays as TE Coby Fleener, WR Doug Baldwin, DT Matt Masifilo and FB/LB Owen Marecic. On the field, the program showed a toughness and grit that hadn't been there previously, and a school that had been known for years for their aerial attacks and quarterbacks with gaudy statistics instead featured a power-running game. His first season was a moderate success as they improved by three wins to finish 4-8. Included in that win tally was a historic upset over Carroll's Trojans. USC entered that game as 41-point favorites, marking this as the biggest point spread upset in history. And the positive momentum continued on the recruiting trail. Once again, his 2008 class was 43rd in the country by, but it featured some big-time recruits, some of which were hyped at the time (QB Andrew Luck, OL David DeCastro, DB Delano Howell) and some of which were under rated (OL Jonathan Martin, OL Sam Schwartzstein, DE Chase Thomas).

The 2008 season saw the return of TB Toby Gerhart from injury, and the 3rd year back was an immediate sensation, setting a single season Stanford rushing record as the Cardinal continued to redefine themselves as a tough, hard-nosed, physical team. They got off to a 5-4 start before dropping their final three games to fall just short of a bowl game, but optimism was bubbling in Palo Alto as program observers were convinced that Luck - who Harbaugh had opted to redshirt despite already being the best QB on the roster as a true frosh - was going to be a superstar. The optimism was further bolstered by what was widely considered a very strong recruiting class (#15 overall by which featured players such as RB Stepfan Taylor, TE Zach Ertz, TE Levine Toilolo, FB/TE Ryan Hewitt, OL Kevin Danser, DL Terrence Stephens, DE Trent Murphy and MLB Shayne Skov.

That optimism was paid off as the Cardinal rode another record-setting year from Gerhart and a strong debut from Luck to an 8-5 season that saw them return to a Bowl for the first time in eight years. More notably, the growing rivalry between Harbaugh and Carroll was stoked by Stanford's 2nd win in three years over the Trojans as the Cardinal posted a then-record 55 points on USC's home turf. Harbaugh never let his foot off the gas in this game, scoring late and going for a 2-point conversion which led Carroll to famously ask Harbaugh "What's your deal?" in the post-game handshake. The good times kept rolling on the recruiting trail as Harbaugh landed the #24 ranked class in the country.

With Gerhart off to the NFL, some wondered if the Cardinal could take another step forward or if Luck would now struggle without his star RB to lean on. Instead, the offense only got better, as the strong OL recruiting and development under Harbaugh was paying off and proving that, while Gerhart was a very good back, he had also benefitted from great OL play. But what really pushed the progress of the team was Harbaugh making a change on the defensive side and bringing in Vic Fangio to run his defense. That move paid immediate dividends as the Cardinal went from fielding one of the worst defenses in the country (#113 by S&P) to one of the best (#6 by S&P). Finally, the hard-nosed play was carrying over to the defensive side of the ball, and Stanford enjoyed their finest season Shaughnessy's 1940 squad that finished 10-0 and #2 in the country. With their only blemish a loss to an Oregon that played for the BCS Title, they earned a spot in the BCS themselves in the Orange Bowl where they demolished Virginia Tech to finish 12-1 and a #4 ranking in the polls. Needless to say, that success on the field continued on the recruiting trail as they again landed a top-25 class.

Harbaugh was now clearly the hottest coach in the game, and he couldn't resist when the 49ers offered him their head coaching job. It's been a win-win for both parties, as Harbaugh has immediately turned around that franchise and positioned them as - along with his old rival Pete Carroll's new team the Seahawks - arguably the best team in the NFL.

Harbaugh has left huge shoes to fill, and to his credit, his successor David Shaw has done so - so far. Continuing the same hard-nosed power football approach and riding the leadership of his stud QB Luck, Shaw returned the Cardinal to another BCS bowl - the Fiesta Bowl this time - where they ultimately fell in a wild shootout to Oklahoma State to finish 11-2. Many expected the Cardinal to come back to Earth last year with Luck gone to the NFL, but instead they finally broke the Oregon stranglehold on the Pac-10/12 and notched their first Rose Bowl in 13 years (and 3rd consecutive BCS bowl) as they finished 12-2, and they enter this season likely to be ranked in the top-10 and mentioned as a dark horse National Championship contender.

Where their Bay Area rivals were unable to break through to elite status in their turnaround under Jeff Tedford, the Cardinal have done so with their best three-year stretch of football since at least 1933-35 (three straight Rose Bowls) and show few signs of slowing down as Shaw has continued - and arguably even improved upon - the recruiting success under Harbaugh.