Former players share stories of Chargers coach Jim Harbaugh

ByKris Rhim ESPN logo
Friday, March 1, 2024

WHEN PLAYERS AT the University of San Diego learned Jim Harbaugh would be taking the head-coaching job in 2004, many were shocked.

Harbaugh had worked for two years as a quarterbacks coach in the NFL after 14 seasons as a player, where he'd earned the name "Captain Comeback."

"Captain Comeback was kind of fresh on everyone's mind, so we're kind of like, 'No way,'" said Eric Bakhtiari, who played defensive end at San Diego. "He still looked like he could play. He had the big chiseled jaw and he still walked around with that intensity, but he also had the youth behind him, too. And then day one he shook the culture up."

One of the first changes Harbaugh implemented was how the team trained. He made the team run a hill on campus that Bakhtiari recalls being at least 400 meters, taking players typically at least 60 seconds to reach the top.

On one occasion Harbaugh joined the team in the sprints, leading the group for each rep. Some players were too tired to keep up and began hiding in bushes or standing off to the side because of the amount of reps and fast pace with which Harbaugh was leading. And Harbaugh felt the effects, too.

"He was full speed up the hill, turned to the left, threw up, got a little bit on his windbreaker on his shoulder and his arm, never broke stride, never said anything about it," Bakhtiari said while laughing. "He acted like nothing happened. It was like the vomit was an inconvenience to his goal."

From that day forward the team deemed that hill, "Harbaugh Hill."

Harbaugh left San Diego after the 2006 season and went on to be the coach at Stanford before later departing for the San Francisco 49ers in 2011 and winning a national championship with Michigan in January.

Over 20 seasons, the Los Angeles Chargers coach has made his name turning programs around by developing quarterbacks -- Andrew Luck, Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick -- and implementing feared rushing offenses.

But he has also earned a reputation marked by his quirks: He often wears the same outfits because that's one fewer non-football decision to be made, he enjoys working out with his players at 60 years old and he's described as a man with a million proverbs.

"These are anecdotes that to the regular person sound wild and incomprehensible," said J.T. Rogan, who played running back for Harbaugh at San Diego, "but to him it's just how he lives his life."

'He's in there working out in khakis'

It didn't matter if it was a 6 a.m. lift or if he just wanted to get some reps in before a game, Harbaugh was often lifting at the University of Michigan weight room with the team, and not in workout clothes.

"He's in there working out in khakis, in a polo, in a cap, shoes," former Michigan defensive lineman Kris Jenkins said.

Jenkins said Harbaugh didn't skimp on the weight he was lifting either, often putting 225 pounds on the bench press while players watched in awe.

"He shocked us," Jenkins said. "We were saying, 'Yeah, that's our coach.'"

Flags fly forever

Before Harbaugh arrived, San Diego had won one game against its biggest rival, the University of Dayton, since joining the Pioneer Football League in 1993. Harbaugh won his first matchup of 2004 38-35, with a game-sealing interception by Bakhtiari, who dropped into coverage to pick off Dayton quarterback Brandon Staley -- the Chargers' former coach who was fired in December, and whom Harbaugh would replace.

After the win, Harbaugh decided he needed to add stakes to this rivalry. So without consulting the opposing head coach, Harbaugh bought a flag and designed it so it was Dayton red on one side and San Diego blue on the other. He decided that the teams would play for the flag each year, adding the final score to the flag after each game.

San Diego ran out with the flag ahead of its matchup the following year, with the 38-35 score written much to the confusion of the Dayton players. In 2005, San Diego won 48-24.

"And Harbo goes to their coach, 'Oh, by the way, we made this flag. This is what we are playing for every year. We obviously get to keep it because we've won two years in a row now,'" Bakhtiari said. "And the coach is confused and like, 'Well I'll have to think about it, Coach.'"

San Diego would beat Dayton again the following year, before Harbaugh left for Stanford after three seasons. Without Harbaugh the following year, San Diego lost for the first time in four matchups. It was the final time the teams played for the flag.

"They came and ripped the flag off our sidelines," Bakhtiari said, laughing. "And I think it's like in someone's garage now. They never end up playing for it again. They were so mad. But it was cool, man, he artificially created this trophy game, but it got us all pumped up. We were all about that flag."

Shake on it

The biggest game of Harbaugh's first season as 49ers coach in 2011 came in Week 6 against the Detroit Lions. The 49ers were 4-1, and the Lions were 5-0.

Harbaugh guaranteed his team it would beat Detroit and said that he would shake Lions coach Jim Schwartz's hand at midfield postgame as hard as he possibly could, former tight end Delanie Walker remembered.

Harbaugh said in a recent interview that he and Schwartz didn't have any prior issues, but that one started during the game when he felt that Schwartz was insulting him. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford threw a touchdown pass to wide receiver Brandon Pettigrew in the first quarter that Harbaugh said wasn't a legal catch.

All touchdowns are reviewed by officials, but Harbaugh threw his challenge flag anyway, resulting in an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Not only did the touchdown stand, but the Niners were penalized 15 yards. Schwartz waved his arms for the crowd to get loud and yelled over at Harbaugh to "know the rules."

"And so maybe I took a little offense to that," Harbaugh said with a smile. "The hard handshake was in response to that."

After the 49ers won 25-19, Harbaugh leaped and waved his fist in the air before giving Schwartz a firm handshake at midfield accompanied by a slap on the back.

Schwartz came charging after Harbaugh, and players from both teams followed to separate and defend their coaches.

"Dudes was ready to get suspended for him," Walker said. "You can watch the film and see that like, we was ready. That's how you knew the love was real."

Harbaugh has since said he was too aggressive on the handshake and regrets that moment. But in the locker room after the on-field scuffle, Harbaugh and the team celebrated the win -- and the handshake.

"Jim was going nuts, saying, 'Yeah, I told y'all I was going to do it,'" Walker remembered. "Everybody was screaming and going crazy. It was big. We were so excited. It gave us chills."

'You are Shea f---ing Patterson'

Quarterback Shea Patterson transferred to the University of Michigan in 2018 for a chance to compete for a national championship in his final two collegiate seasons.

But in 2019, Patterson's senior year, his confidence dissipated as he struggled at the start of the season. In Michigan's first game against Middle Tennessee State, he fumbled twice and was booed by fans at the Wolverine's home stadium.

Through their first five games of the season, Patterson had thrown for six touchdowns and three interceptions, and Michigan lost to Wisconsin, a hit to its postseason hopes. The pressure on Harbaugh to make a change at quarterback mounted, and Patterson felt it.

Harbaugh sat in on a quarterbacks meeting ahead of the team's next game against Illinois. Harbaugh reminded Patterson that he shouldn't forget "you are Shea f---ing Patterson," reiterating his belief in the quarterback.

The conversation was brief, Patterson remembered, but it was all he needed. He threw three touchdown passes and no interceptions against Illinois and finished the season tossing 14 touchdown passes and four interceptions over the final seven games.

"He has a really good knack of getting people to play to their best ability regardless of the circumstances," Patterson said. "He sees the glass half full. Just that little bit of spark of confidence that he gave me completely turned my season around. He helped me flip the switch from being in that dark, negative place to remembering who I was."

The backup quarterback

Walker tells the story as if he is still on the San Francisco 49ers' practice field, watching a quarterback he hadn't seen before wearing No. 4 warming up.

It was an odd day for the team long before this moment. They were told that Harbaugh wouldn't be at practice and weren't given a reason. Quarterback Alex Smith was dealing with an injury, and not having him or Harbaugh at practice during a game week made some players nervous.

As Walker and the rest of the team headed out to the practice field and saw a player wearing No. 4, they assumed the team had signed a quarterback because of Smith's injury.

When they got closer, they realized that the player was actually their coach. Clad in 49ers practice gear with throwback ankle-high Apex cleats, Harbaugh greeted players as if this was standard procedure and went through practice and conditioning with his team.

"That made people realize he's one of us," Walker said. "I think all the guys bought into that and that's what I think made them realize like he is for us, not against us. And you know, dudes really start falling in love with him then."

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