Harbaugh turns Stanford around with 'blue collar' approach

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The man known as Captain Comeback during his NFL days is starting to look like a turnaround specialist in his second career. In his third season at Stanford, coach Jim Harbaugh has the Cardinal off to a 3-1 start -- including a 2-0 record in the Pac-10. The argument is being made in these parts that Stanford's clash with undefeated UCLA is the Pac-10's game of the week, eclipsing Cal-USC, a.k.a. the What Might Have Been Bowl.

While the Trojans and Bears are still trying to pick up the pieces from their recent, respective stunning defeats, leadership of the Pac-10 will be decided in (it feels weird typing this) Palo Alto, when the Bruins take on Stanford. Even as he's been counting the days until starting quarterback Kevin Prince returns from a broken jaw, UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel has been able to count on a swarming stingy defense that's yielding less than 13 points a game.

Leading the Cardinal's attack against that unit will be Andrew Luck, a redshirt freshman whose biggest fan is his head coach. "He's a special talent," says Harbaugh. "Tall, rugged, good arm -- no, great arm." Answering a reporter's question, the coach replies that Luck hails from Houston, which triggers a digression on the passion of Texas high school football ("A beautiful thing to watch"), which reaches its terminus with Harbaugh's recollection of a long-ago brawl.

There came a night when Harbaugh and some friends "got in a fight with some guys from Texas, and they said they were gonna kick our ass, Texas-style," recalls the coach, specifying neither the year nor band of brothers with whom he shared this adventure. "And I didn't know what that meant, until it happened."

This self-deprecating account was in keeping with the general theme of our discussion, which centered on how Harbaugh has transformed a soft, sad-sack outfit into a team that, even if it doesn't beat you, is going to inflict a beating.

The team Harbaugh inherited in 2007 had lost a school-record 11 games. It finished the season ranked 115th in rushing, 117th in rushing defense, and 119th in sacks allowed. The truth is that even before Stanford hit rock bottom under coach Walt Harris, its identity had been that of the team that would just as soon outwit you than outhit you. Cardinal offenses have long been described as "sophisticated." Harbaugh played for Bo Schembechler at Michigan and Mike Ditka in Chicago. He's a lot of things -- funny, high energy, hands-on, a motivator -- but sophisticated isn't one of them.

"We're gonna be creative, we want to be creative, but we're not trying to out-finesse anybody," he says. "We'd rather be blue collar than ... geniuses."

Which is not to say there aren't some seriously hypertrophied IQs on the Cardinal roster. Luck was his high school's valedictorian. Left guard Chris Marinelli scored "maxima cum laude" on the national Latin exam as a high school senior. Fullback and premed student Owen Marecic received the National Football Foundation Scholar Athlete Award at Jesuit High in Tigard, Ore.

Just as Harbaugh believes Marecic "may be the best fullback in the country," he also thinks the junior embodies "more than anybody the personality of this team. He just loves to hit people."

Marecic has five carries in three seasons. His raison d'être is to protect Luck and clear a path for tailback Toby Gerhart, a bruising downhill runner whose 129 yards per game ranks third in the country and first in the Pac-10. Harbaugh's extreme makeover is bearing fruit.

That his push for a "blue collar" ethos drew potshots from around the conference -- and from one Berkeley-based school in particular -- was predictable. Strolling the pathways of this palm-lined university (whose endowment plunged 30 percent this year ... to a scant $12 billion!), stopping to admire, say, the Paul Allen Center for Integrated Systems or the Rodin sculptures in Memorial Court, one does not pick up on an especially proletarian vibe.

More surprising was the pushback Harbaugh got from within The Farm. "When we came out with the whole 'blue-collar' thing," he recalls, "a lot of Stanford people" asked "Blue? Why blue? We're red." Others inferred an insult to white-collar workers.

"But it's coming around," says Harbaugh. "People are starting to appreciate it and buy into it. We're a work in progress."

As that work goes on, Stanford is starting to kick butt on the football field -- a state of affairs which, until very recently, seemed highly implausible. To paraphrase Harbaugh, you didn't know what that meant until it happened.