Phil Barber here, back for one final Jim Harbaugh post. This one is with J.T. Rogan, who set several major career records at the University of San Diego – including rushing yardage and touchdowns – while playing for Harbaugh there. Rogan isn’t as well known as Marshall Faulk or Toby Gerhart, but he was an engaging interview (conducted in Week 8.) He was an offensive assistant on Harbaugh’s Stanford staff last year, but is trying to make one more go of playing football after finally recovering from a serious injury at USD.
Of particular interest for long-time Niners fans: Rogan has some great insights into Harbaugh’s initial evaluation of Alex Smith. As always, thanks to Grant Cohn for the bandwidth.
Was Harbaugh mellower at USD, or did his antics just not make national headlines?
“Well, it was definitely I-AA non-scholarship football. People didn’t take it too seriously. We knew who he was, and we knew, obviously, that we were playing for a former NFL quarterback. So it was really a great time and a great opportunity for us. And he wasn’t subdued by any means. It was him being intense and passionate as always, and he would bring former teammates, like former Colts players, and they would come and talk to us and say, ‘Man, you got one fired-up coach.’ So there weren’t too many incidents. There was one in particular that sticks out. We played Penn his first year at USD and we lost, I believe it was 61-18. And he shook hands with the coach afterwards, and the coach said, ‘It’s not our job to stop ourselves. That’s your job. You need to recruit better players.’ And that was something that stuck with him for a while.
“It took a couple years, and we got the opportunity to play a league rival in Drake, and we traveled out to Iowa, and they were selling tickets for a dollar and hot fudge for a dollar. They wanted to get everybody out to the game, and it ended up being about 25 or 30 degrees out there. It was freezing. It was a night game. And we went out there, and we ended up beating them, I believe it was 37-0. We pitched a shutout, had a great game. It was a great team win, ended up winning the league championship that year. And a parent wrote a letter and said, you know, ‘We traveled four hours to watch our kids play. And we want everybody to participate and play well, and we think that you might have pushed too hard. We just wanted to see a good game and everything, and it’s really discouraging for the other team not to score a point.’ And he made it a point to go out of his way to let the concerned parent know that it’s not our job to stop ourselves. It’s their job, and they need to recruit better players.
“That has always been woven into his DNA, that competing and just everything like that. He got booed at our championship game in 2005 for throwing a fade when we’re up two touchdowns, I think, with a minute-plus left to go. That’s always been his M.O., to go for the jugular. And that’s part of the reason the players love to play for him, because he’s a competitor, he’s intense, he loves winning and he’ll stop at nothing to do it.”
It’s almost like he can’t help himself because he’s so competitive, eh?
“Yeah. He can’t get out of his own way in that regard. And there’s another story. We were at the grand opening for a (unintelligible) they were building right around Petco Park. And he’s there, and he’s kind of a dignitary, and they’ve got a baseball throwing machine. And by no regards does Coach Harbaugh have a terrifically strong arm. He musters everything he can to throw the ball. And so there’s this baseball throwing machine, he’s got a suit and tie on, everything like that. I see it, like, ‘Hey, Coach, are you gonna give it a shot?’ He’s like, ‘Well, is that a challenge? Is that a competition?’ And by no means did I intend that. I just wanted to see what he thought he could do on the thing, and it ended up turning into a competition who could throw the ball faster, he or I, on the radar machine, at an event that’s pretty formal. You know, Tony Gwynn was there and everything like that.
“That’s how he’s wired. And anybody you talk to will tell you as much. And I had the opportunity to go to Stanford last year, and what he took at USD, he’s the same person as was in the NFL at USD, same person at Stanford, and I imagine he’s the same guy coaching now at the 49ers. Got a couple former players up there with him at the 49ers, and all the reports say he’s just the same guy. He’s as competitive as can be.”
But a lot of intense coaches aren’t very successful. What is it about Harbaugh that takes the edge off?
“He is comically maniacal, if that makes sense. He will say things… Like last year, he said that he doesn’t apologize for anything. He’s never apologized for anything. And he will just make these outlandish statements that are just patently false. But he believes them, and you can’t talk him off of them. You know, the Niners break down every week with ‘Who’s got it better than us? Nooobody.’ And he had that at USD, and he did it at Stanford – not as often, I suppose, as he does with the Niners. But ‘Who’s got it better than us? Nobody?’ Well, you know, if you’re just looking at it as an outsider, externally – who’s got it better than us? Well, the Niners practice pretty impressively on Saturday, they get up a sweat, because he believes in that, and I don’t believe a lot of teams do that. And then I’ve talked to my guys who are up there, and they say they basically don’t get a day off, that they work out every day and that he wants the guys that are on the practice squad to get quality, valuable reps because they don’t know when they’re gonna get called on. So, if you were just an observer, and you said, ‘Who’s got it better than us?’ You’d probably say, you know, 31 other teams.
“But he’s won by numbing repetition. He’s said he’s always wanted to win with character, or class and cruelty. When he came to USD, said ‘We want to treat people in a first-class manner while winning multiple championships. And so he’s taken that format and that template, and just continued to instill it everywhere he goes.”
With all that said, are you surprised Harbaugh has turned around the 49ers so quickly?
“You know, you can’t really be surprised by anything that he does. And part of the reason I say it is, I had an opportunity to talk to him prior to him taking the 49ers job, and I asked him, ‘How do you feel about your team? What do you think about your guys?’ And everything just kept getting more positive. You know, I asked him about Alex Smith. He’s like, ‘Alex Smith is a very smart quarterback. He’s athletically capable of doing what we need him to do. He wasn’t put in good situations in the offense last year. They took seven-steps drops too often. The play-action game was weak, they didn’t have sufficient audibles for him.’
“And I believe it was Bo Schembechler who told him, if you got a tight end and you got a running back, you got a team. So he had those parts. You know, the Niners defense was stout, and he was able to bring Vic Fangio with him, who’s a terrific defensive coordinator. We called him Lord Fangio over at Stanford. He got a great special teams coordinator. So it seemed like everything had kind of come together, and he’s playing in the NFC West, which is widely known to be the poorest division in all of football. So, I mean, 6-1 was obviously not expected, but I don’t think you could say that you’re shocked by it. And if someone had told me they’d be 6-1 right now, I would have believed it, just because of the belief I have in him and his ability to accomplish things he puts his mind to.”