Wednesday September 3rd, 2008

With players he inherited from predecessor Walt Harris, Jim Harbaugh has turned Stanford into a potential bowl team. But what Harbaugh has done for the Cardinal on the field is only half the story. Between practices and games, Harbaugh has worked to stock Stanford's roster for an even brighter future.

Despite high admission standards that have hamstrung even excellent recruiters, Harbaugh has beaten teams with more recent football success for players. The first sign that Harbaugh had something special going was the June 2007 commitment of Houston quarterback Andrew Luck, who chose the Cardinal over Virginia and Purdue. But Luck also had fellow academic powerhouses Rice and Northwestern on his list, so Stanford's lofty U.S. News and World Report ranking -- No. 4, behind Harvard, Princeton, Yale and tied with MIT -- probably meant more to Luck than most recruits.

In building the class of 2009, though, Harbaugh has beaten traditional football powers head-to-head. He beat Florida to get commitments from Helix (San Diego) tight end Levine Toilolo and McDonough (Ga.) Henry County receiver Jamal Patterson. Harbaugh had to fight Pac-10 rivals Oregon and Arizona for a commitment from Wilson (Long Beach, Calif.) receiver Jemari Roberts, and last month he beat out Notre Dame and Texas A&M for a commitment from Mansfield, Texas, back Stepfan Taylor.

So how does Harbaugh do it? "The way Stanford recruited me was a lot different from everybody else," said Toilolo, a 6-foot-8, 239-pounder from the same high school that produced former USC tailback Reggie Bush and former Utah quarterback Alex Smith. "They didn't send me a bunch of junk mail. They sent hand-written letters."

That personal touch is only the beginning. While high academic standards can handicap schools such as Stanford, Notre Dame, Duke and Vanderbilt in recruiting, Harbaugh and his staff have managed to turn those standards into an advantage when pursuing the 100-150 players a year who are good enough to compete at the Pac-10 level and capable of competing in the classroom at Stanford. "He really showed me that Stanford presents the best of both worlds," Toilolo said.

Harbaugh does have an advantage over his counterparts in South Bend, Durham and Nashville. While those schools offer exceptional academic programs, Stanford can boast the top academic program in all of Division I-A. "You're talking about a universe of one at Stanford," Harbaugh told The New York Times last year. "In terms of a school that plays in the Pac-10, is a BCS school and also has a top-five education. There's no other school that competes in Division (I-A) that ranks higher than Stanford in any single subject area."

With such a limited talent pool to choose from, Harbaugh and his staff have done well identifying players early and building a relationship before the power schools pick up the scent. Remember, the football factories want academically focused players, too. They listen, they lead and they're less likely to wind up on the police blotter. But if Harbaugh can reach them as sophomores and juniors and ensure they keep their grades at a level that would allow them to get into Stanford, he can nullify the built-in advantage the factories enjoy.

Of course, Harbaugh's success on the field and on the recruiting trail raises a thorny question. How long will he remain in Palo Alto? All it takes is one good season to draw interest from schools looking to upgrade their staff. According to Toilolo, Harbaugh doesn't seem interested in making that jump.

"That's something you look at before you commit, how long the coach is going to be there," Toilolo said. "But Coach Harbaugh seems pretty comfortable at Stanford."

Tate Forcier, the Scripps Ranch (San Diego) quarterback who was kind enough to give the world a glimpse of scholarship offer letters on his Web site, left the office of Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez on Sunday with a promise that he would return and give Rodriguez an idea of where the Wolverines stood in Forcier's top five. While eating lunch with his father, Forcier changed the plan. When he saw Rodriguez a few hours later, he committed.

"I had no intention to commit," Forcier said. "I was of the mindset that I was going to take all five official visits. Somehow, [Michigan] managed to pull it off."

Forcier said Michigan's loss to Utah on Saturday didn't deter him. If anything, it showed him that he'll have a chance to compete for the starting job when he enrolls in January. He said the notion to commit hit him Sunday after a meeting with Rodriguez. Just to make sure, Forcier called his brother, Jason, who started his career at Michigan but has since transferred to Stanford. Tate said Jason told him to trust his instincts. "He said, 'Well, then do it. Don't second guess it'," Tate said.

Forcier's commitment came less than a month after Chesapeake, Va., quarterback Kevin Newsome decommitted from Michigan and reopened his recruitment. If the current commitments hold, Forcier would begin 2009 competing with current quarterbacks Steven Threet and Nick Sheridan as well as Justin Feagin, who is expected to redshirt this season, and fellow commit Shavodrick Beaver. Forcier said he welcomes the competition, because he believes Rodriguez's scheme is his dream offense. "Now, I'm a Michigan man," Forcier said. "I'm proud to say it."

Recruitniks will get two chances this week to watch high-profile prospects play on national television. Tonight at 9 on ESPN2, USC-bound quarterback Matt Barkley, the consensus top recruit in the nation, will lead Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) against Carson (Calif.), which features USC commit Morrell Presley at tight end.

Friday at 8 on ESPNU, a showdown for supremacy in the Tampa Bay area will feature several prospects. Plant (Tampa), with Georgia-bound quarterback Aaron Murray and tight end Orson Charles (Miami, Georgia, Florida, Auburn and many others), will face Armwood (Seffner, Fla.) and stars DE Ryne Giddins (Auburn, Clemson, Florida, Florida State, Miami), LB Petey Smith (Auburn, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama), ATH Mywan Jackson (Michigan, Auburn), S Angelo Hadley (various SEC and ACC schools) and OL Justin Cabbagestalk (Vanderbilt).

I'm taking part in an online panel discussion of Buzz Bissinger's Friday Night Lights on the Web site of The New York Times. If you only know FNL through the film or through the supremely awesome TV show -- which is based only loosely on the book -- do yourself a favor and head to the bookstore. Bissinger followed the Odessa (Texas) Permian High football team through the 1988 season, and his account isn't only a sports story; it's a heartbreaking portrait of a town struggling to deal with the economic realities of the boom-and-bust oil industry.

In my first post, I imagined what might have happened to fullback Boobie Miles -- the inspiration for TV's Smash Williams -- had the recruiting scene been the same in 1988 as it is today.

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