The Harbaugh interviews: Toby Gerhart

Phil Barber, checking in again. Toby Gerhart spent one dismal year at Stanford under Walt Harris before Jim Harbaugh came aboard and rejuvenated the program. As you will read in the Q&A below, Gerhart had his doubts about playing for Harbaugh after their first meeting. Now a Minnesota Vikings running back, he has become one of Harbaugh’s biggest supporters. Thanks to Grant Cohn for letting me share this space for a while.

Did Harbaugh make a strong impression on you right away at Stanford?
“Yeah, he did. You know, he came in right away and kind of brought this aura or this vibe of confidence – confidence in us and confidence in the program. I remember one of the first things when he was there, but the little thing with Coach Carroll where he basically went out and said, ‘We bow to no program, we’re not scared of anybody.’ Well, USC had been a perennial power with Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart and all those guys right before he got there, and he basically called Carroll out and said, ‘We’re not afraid of you, we won’t back down to you – we’re gonna beat you,’ basically, within a matter of weeks when he was there.”

That sort of bravado sometimes rings hollow. Why does it work for Harbaugh?
“I think it works for him because (a) he truly believes it, (b) he really rallies his players and has faith in his players, and really gets them to play. For us, we were 1-11, we weren’t very good, and he comes out and calls out USC, and it kind of inspires confidence in yourself. It’s not just someone trying to make some noise, or anything like that. He truly believed in us, and as a result, I think all of us played better, and want to play better for him and back him up all the same.”

Harbaugh can be hard to get to know for the media. What was it like for a college player to interact with him?
“He is, at times, a little difficult to get close to. But at the same time, he’d kind of welcome you with open arms. When he first got there, I played baseball at Stanford, too. And I told him, ‘I play baseball also.’ He said, ‘What? You can’t do that. You can’t miss football.’ And I was kind of like, ‘Well, we had this agreement with the last coach.’ So I walked away from the first meeting saying, well, this is gonna be a conflict of interest. But as the weeks went on, he really began to welcome me with open arms. He really is a players’ coach.

“He’s out there, he makes it fun, he brings passion to the game, he rekindles that love for football that you had as a kid. And it kind of wanes at times, especially maybe in the NFL, where guys are more worried about money. He kind of brings back that life of football, that fun. He’d be out there running around with a helmet on, throwing passes, going through the walk-through pretending to be one of the wide receivers we were gonna play next week, that weekend. There’s little things like that that make it fun. Inspires confidence in terms of he’s gonna compliment you when you do well, and when you do bad, at the end of the day he’s always kind of picking you up. He’ll always go to bat for you as a player. You know, he’s not gonna bash you in the media. And that kind of makes you in turn want to play for him. If your coach has confidence in you, confidence goes a long way, for yourself and for the way you play.”

Harbaugh seems to balance his toughness with a cerebral approach to the game. Would you agree with that assessment?
“That he’s passionate and cerebral at the same time, is that what you’re saying?”
“Yeah, that’s his M.O. That’s the thing that even to this day, and through Stanford, is the toughness of the team. That was his whole thing. He wanted to be ‘relentless,’ was the key word he always talked about. Relentless in the pursuit of perfection, relentless in the pursuit of how you push yourself – whether it be in the weight room, on the practice field – and relentless in a game. You go through adversities, and theres ups and downs, ebbs and flows of games, but continue to push and be relentless. And his kind of passion – you know, we’re gonna be physical, we’re gonna be blue-collar, hit ’em in the mouth. These are all kind of clichés or phrases that he consistently used. And you began to buy into ’em. And he did that at Stanford, and he’s done that with the 49er team currently. They go out there, they line up, they run power, they dare you to stop them, they spread it out and they throw the ball, the defense is running around. They’re playing with that passion, with that physicalness, with that relentless persona that he has built there.”

How innovative were his playbook and his play-calling at Stanford?
“Definitely. I think he brought it in two different ways. We were always extremely well prepared. And he was always integrating new players. While we were in meetings and watching film, he’d often come up with a brand new play and put it up on the board and draw it, and say ‘I want to try it this way today.’ At the same time, to steal a quote from my current running backs coach here at the Vikings (James Saxon), simplicity is the ultimate complexity. When you can do a complex task and make it look simple, you’ve really mastered it. And that’s the thing I think we really did well at Stanford. We just ran the basic, you know, line up and run it right at you –  run power. He would always have different ways with personnel groups, extra linemen in the game, stuff like that. But at the end of the day it was one simple play, but we ran it to perfection, and it really would catch defenses off-guard. It was one of the simplest plays, but run it to perfection and make it complex to other teams.”

With everything you’ve told me, are you still surprised he’s turned it around so quickly in San Francisco?
“Yes and no. It’s tough for him, coming into a year especially when there’s a lockout, there’s not a lot of practice to get the offense in, stuff like that. But his personality as well. Like I said, he’s passionate, he’s aggressive, he’s physical in terms of how he wants you to play. But you never know, in the NFL, people don’t necessarily like that. Especially as you get older, you don’t want to be banging every time in practice. And I thought maybe there’d be a little push-back from the way he was in college. But like we did at Stanford, I think the 49ers really adopted what Jim was saying. They bought into his blue-collar mentality, his physicalness. They ran with it, and as a result they’re having success way earlier than anybody expected. And I do think that’s because Harbaugh and his staff, really his personality and what he brings to the team.”

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