Before Jim Harbaugh elevated Stanford from a Pac 10 laughingstock to the #2 team in the country, he was, as recently as 2006, the head coach of San Diego. Not San Diego State. The San Diego Toreros. Blood enemy of Marist, Western New Mexico, and Cal Poly.
After starring at Michigan under Bo Schembeckler and a successful, if journeyman, 14 year career in the NFL, Harbaugh worked as a NFL assistant for the Raiders for two years. Dissatisfied by the coaching state of order in elite football, he took a step way back - at least by conventional coaching wisdom - to become the head coach at USD.
Harbaugh's reasoning was straightforward enough. He knew he was a great coach. He would take any head coaching job, win a lot of games, and force better programs to hire him through sheer force of will. He turned San Diego into a Pioneer League powerhouse, going 29-6 in three years, 22-2 over his last two. When he was hired for the Stanford job (Stanford had been 1-11 in the year prior to his hire, 16-40 in the previous five), describing the Bay Area as underwhelmed would have been kind. That changed quickly. Eventually, Harbaugh left Stanford to elevate the San Francisco 49ers from a pitiful loser to the NFC Championship game in his first year as head coach.
Given the opportunities his competency demanded from the market, Harbaugh changed perceptions about his "proper place" in the blink of an eye. Any suggestion that Jim Harbaugh was probably the best coach in football while he was at San Diego or in his first two years at Stanford while going 9-15 would have been roundly mocked. But he probably was.
Coaching is not a pure meritocracy. The best coaches do not always hold the best jobs at any given moment. Fortunately, it is a profession with a built-in vitality curve - lose enough, and you're on your way out. Win enough, and eventually someone will be forced to notice you. But programs and teams with the best advantages have an amazing facility for hiring second rate candidates, often wandering in the desert for years with nonsensical hires. Usually because they get caught up in chasing names, oversteering from a previous failure, overemphasizing characteristics of the job that are nearly meaningless, or allowing overly influential alums to queer the process. And some ADs are just flat out terrible at hiring.
Texas fans should recognize the Jim Harbaugh story. Because it has the key elements of opportunity and guts that created our own coaching legend.
Texas didn't want Darrell Royal in 1956. They first sought Georgia Tech's legendary Bobby Dodd, then Michigan State's young up-and-comer Duffy Daugherty, and were rebuffed by both. Each independently mentioned Darrell Royal as a bright young coach, worthy of an interview. Texas reluctantly summoned Royal to Austin.
Before Darrell Royal came to Texas, he had been a college head coach for three relatively undistinguished years at Mississippi State (12-8 record) and the University of Washington (5-5) - 1950s football backwaters - and before that spent a year coaching the CFL's Edmonton Eskimos. DKR had played under the legendary Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma, where he, like Harbaugh, exhibited a great work ethic and a keen mind for the game, and parlayed that into assistant gigs at Tulsa and NC State. When he was selected for the head coaching job at Texas, Royal was 32 years old. He had no real business being the head coach at Texas. But once Texas talked to him, the choice was obvious. In his first year, he turned a 1-9 team into a 6-4-1 winner.
Right now, Texas fans are contemplating their own future head coach hire. Whenever that happens. And the names being bandied about are predictable and understandable, even if a few of them are delusional. They are mostly all "names." Nick Saban. Chris Petersen. Chip Kelly. Will Muschamp. Urban Meyer. And the fruits from the coaching tree of the aforementioned names. Kirby Smart. Charlie Strong. Dan Mullen. Sprinkle in the typical NFL mentions, too. Some of these guys would do very well at Texas. Some simply can't coach here (Chip Kelly), wouldn't coach here (Nick Saban), their ship has sailed (Muschamp), or aren't as much known quantities as we pretend (Charlie Strong).
None of them are the head coach at San Diego University. Or a .500 coach at Washington. But there are Royal and Harbaugh-type coaches out there right now, hustling and winning on the margins of college football. And they're better at their craft than most of the guys making millions a year more than they do. And their hunger, passion, and the experiences they bring to bear provide something sorely needed in a place as rife with complacency as Texas.
Any coaching search that doesn't include these sorts of candidates is, to me, a complete failure. Our next hire should be hired based on demonstrated competencies. Not name association and reputation. Imagination and vision is needed, not default safety picks.
I'll offer three guys worth investigating.
Gary Andersen - Utah State
Before he became the head coach at Utah State, Andersen was a 10 year assistant at Utah, retained under the three successful, but very disparate, regimes of Ron McBride, Urban Meyer, and Kyle Whittingham. Not a bad cross section of coaches to grow under. He saw Utah's decay under the tenured McBride, the transformative revitalization of Meyer, and consolidation under Whittingham - the entire life cycle of a college program.
From a pure competency standpoint, there was no college defense doing more with less while Andersen was Utah's DC (2004-2008) and DL coach. He's also been a special teams coordinator.
At Utah State, Andersen took over a nightmare program in 2008 that had gone 19-62 in the previous seven years and hadn't seen a bowl since 1997. By his third year, he had them in a bowl. This year, Utah State is 10-2, won the WAC, and their two losses are 16-14 at Wisconsin and 6-3 at BYU. They're seven points away from an undefeated season. It's also worth noting that in the wide open WAC (Louisiana Tech, the league's 3rd place team, dropped 57 on Texas A&M), Andersen has the top ranked defense in the league by every meaningful measure. They allow only 15.2 points per game. The complexities of Big 12 offenses would elicit a yawn.
How did Andersen engineer this turnaround? Well, he appears to be a hell of a pure coach, for starters. But he also was ranked as Rivals #1 Recruiter in Non-BCS conferences in 2005. He's doing it in living rooms as much as on whiteboards. He gets the scraps of recruiting and that forces him to be elite at evaluation. And he's relentless in getting their signature.
Watch the video. Look at the resume. Does he know the game? Would you want to play for him? Given his track record, could he be successful at Texas? Forget name recognition. Look at the competencies. Would you bring him in for an interview?
Mike Macintyre - San Jose State
The WAC has another rising star coaching candidate (three if you count Dykes at Louisiana Tech). MacIntyre, the former NFL DB coach (Cowboys, Jets), turned Duke defensive coordinator (won a Broyles Award in 2009) took over a moribund San Jose State program and currently has them at 10-2. The Spartans only two losses are to the aforementioned Gary Andersen's Utah State and a three point loss to Stanford. At Stanford.
I really like MacIntyre. He's the ice to Andersen's fire. Watch the video. Sharp, unflappable executive demeanor, no bullshit. Like Andersen, he's very comfortable with who he is. Working for Bill Parcells and Rex Ryan probably helps to get you there.
MacIntyre also coached at Ole Miss (this isn't a disconnected NFL guy who will grow weary of college) and San Jose State just signed what most consider to be the best recruiting class in that league. So getting kids to sign on the line that is dotted is not an issue. If you're not familiar with San Jose State's place in California football cosmology, that's a minor miracle.
Dave Doeren - Northern Illinois
Yeah, I could play for that guy.
Probably the best known of the three, Doeren is also the youngest. Unlike Andersen and MacIntyre, Doeren took over a solid Northern Illinois program (11-3 the season before his arrival under Jerry Kill, who went to Minnesota) and went 11-3 in his first season. This year, he's doing more of the same. What Andersen and MacIntyre have accomplished is more impressive, but playing a strong hand well may be as good a preparation for Texas as successfully bluffing off-suit low cards.
I like Doeren's background. He coached at Drake (alma mater), was a GA at USC, coached DBs at 1-AA national champion Montana, spent three years at Kansas (recruiting coordinator and LBs coach, so yeah, he knows Texas), and eventually ended up at Wisconsin where he was a fairly successful DC from 2006-2010.
For a young guy, he has a seen an array of programs and philosophies, and he learned at Wisconsin to make due with three star athletes that are coached up, developed over four and five year timelines, and win by being more physical and prepared. Would bringing some of those attributes and an understanding of program building built on development and constancy be useful at Texas? I think so.
I don't pretend to be expert on any of these men. For all I know, they have deep, undetected issues that prevent their hire. But I'd like to find out. There are some truly outstanding football coaches out there, away from the bright lights of the name conferences and schools, that are worthy of being taken seriously. And the perspective, internal drive, sheer competency, and character they've built doing it the hard way are sorely needed right now at Texas.
At least that's what we learned in 1956. And Stanford learned with the coach of the San Diego Toreros.