Harbaugh’s grit reflected in his teams’ ground games

Jim Harbaugh, Mr. We Want to Build a Bully, is not your stereotypical pretty-boy ex-quarterback.

Just ask the members of the 2004 University of San Diego Toreros, Coach Harbaugh’s first team, about their leader’s willingness to get dirty.

Evan Harney, a star USD running back, recalls Harbaugh running through campus with the team during conditioning drills, pumping out push-ups during stretching exercises and sacrificing his then-40-year-old body for extra yardage in practice.

“We’d have (the first-team offense) versus the (first-team defense) and he’d get down there behind center and take a snap and he’d find an open receiver,” Harney said. “If nobody was open, he’d scramble and run for the first down. Everyone else was in full pads and he was in his coaching polo and shorts and he was diving for the first down. So that gives you a little bit of an idea about the guy.”

As a coach, Harbaugh is perhaps best known for his ability to develop quarterbacks. But his teams – three at USD and four at Stanford – have always reflected his rugged, down-and-dirty ethos. That is to say, they have always had a knock-them-off-the-ball running attack.

Just ask Harney. Harbaugh’s use of the 6-foot-1, 220-pounder offered the first bit of evidence that the ex-quarterback’s offensive philosophy would feature plenty of physicality. Harney, a junior in 2004, rushed for 1,334 yards on 303 carries and scored 18 touchdowns. A workhorse? Harney had at least 30 carries in five of 11 games and averaged 27.5 carries a contest, ranking third in Division I-AA.

“We always wanted to be a physical team,” Harney said. “And with any team, if you can control the line of scrimmage then you have a real good chance of winning the game. But it was emphasized all the way from the offensive line to our fullbacks to me as a running back to really control the line of scrimmage and have that power as far as the run game goes. Because if you can’t establish that, it makes it a lot harder to throw the ball successfully. That was definitely a theme that we had.”

The theme has continued throughout Harbaugh’s coaching career. His seven teams have featured five primary running backs – Harney and J.T Rogan at USD and Anthony Kimble, Toby Gerhart and Stepfan Taylor at Stanford. Those five big-bodied backs – all at least 200 pounds – have each averaged at least 72.7 yards a game, which would translate to 1,163 yards over a 16-game NFL season. At the college level, it’s translated to five 1,000-yard seasons (two by Gerhart).

I asked Harney, who rushed for 1,475 yards in 2003, if Harbaugh, upon taking the job at USD, immediately informed him that the running game would be emphasized. Harney explained that Harbaugh didn’t arrive with any preconceived we’re-going-to-run-the-ball-50-times-a-game notions.

Rather, he drew up flexible game plans and made in-game adjustments, resulting in an offensive balance.

“There was always an answer for whatever could get thrown at us,” Harney said. “Coach Harbaugh and the coaching staff understood the opponent so well and what their defense was going to bring to us. And they always had a counter for that — the game plan that they would put together was amazing. It really was that balance. If they tried to stack the box, we had the perfect pass play for that or vice versa.”

A balance? No kidding. With Harney and star quarterback Todd Mortensen, the Pioneer League’s co-Offensive Player of the Year, the Toreros had 419 runs and 414 passes in 2004.

• Harney, currently pursuing his MBA degree at USC, talked about Harbaugh in equally glowing terms as a person. Harney couldn’t play as a senior in 2005 due to an off-the-field accident in which he suffered multiple skull fractures and a brain contusion.

He said Harbaugh was instrumental in helping him through a difficult time, ensuring Harney stayed connected to the team by giving him a role coaching running backs. He said Harbaugh, then coaching at Stanford, was the first person he asked for a letter of recommendation when he applied to USC.

“Coach Harbaugh, to this day, he is one of my greatest mentors,” Harney said. “He’s a guy that really inspires me. He really led by example. He’s certainly a hard-nosed guy and everything that he teaches he lives out.”

• Harbaugh has had one of the nation’s leading workhorses in two of his seven seasons as a coach:

Carries Per Game
Division I
2009
1. Toby Gerhart, Stanford, 26.4 (13 games, 343 carries)
2. Dion Lewis, Pittsburgh, 25.0 (13-325)
3. Ricky Dobbs, Navy, 24.3 (13-315)

2004
Division I-AA
1. Nick Hartigan, Brown, 32.3 (10-323)
2. Charles Anthony, Tennessee State, 27.8 (11-306)
3. Evan Harney, USD, 27.5 (11-303)

Wondering about Frank Gore’s future workload? Harbaugh praised backup Anthony Dixon during a fan forum last month, but ended his discussion of the running-back position with this: “… It won’t the type of thing where we’re going to have Frank Gore coming off the field too much because he’s one of the best backs in the league in my opinion.”

• A look at Harbaugh’s leading rushers in his seven seasons as a college coach:

USD
2004: Evan Harney, 303 carries, 1,334 yards, 4.4 YPC, 121.3 YPG
2005: J.T. Rogan, 184, 944, 5.1, 85.8
2006: J.T. Rogan, 190, 1,002, 5.3, 83.5

STANFORD
2007: Anthony Kimble, 115, 526, 4.4, 72.7
(Kimble missed four games due to injury)
2008: Toby Gerhart, 210, 1,136, 5.4, 94.7
2009: Toby Gerhart, 343, 1,871, 5.5, 143.9
2010: Stepfan Taylor, 223, 1,137, 5.1, 87.5

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