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Monday, April 6, 2009
Harbaugh not afraid to stir things up at Stanford

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Names and positions are flying out of Jim Harbaugh's mouth, and it's impossible to keep up. For Stanford's head coach, the spring roster and depth chart is just a hint at what his football team might look like in 2009. Being one of his 16 returning starters doesn't mean a whole lot.

Start at the top. If the season began today, Harbaugh said, redshirt freshman Andrew Luck would be his quarterback, not senior Tavita Pritchard, who's started 19 games over the past two seasons.

"It's undeniable that [Luck] is really good -- better than we thought," Harbaugh said of the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Houston native.

Then there's Harbaugh's new thing. He estimates 10 players might go both ways for him next fall.

That means 241-pound Owen Marecic will start at fullback and see significant action at middle linebacker.

Sophomore Michael Thomas is pushing to start at cornerback. But he's seeing some action at running back. So is Alex Debniak, an outside linebacker.

Defensive ends Erik Lorig and Tom McAndrew are logging time at tight end. Tight end Coby Fleener is doing the same at defensive end.

And so on.

"More so than old school, it could be the wave of the future," he said.

It's clear Harbaugh is willing to experiment, whether it's players going both ways, players switching positions or splitting spring practices into two separate minicamps.

It's the sort of thing that gets a coach noticed. Stanford fans might not have been won over by the rapidly improving product on the field -- see an average 2008 paid attendance of 34,258 in a 50,000-seat, recently renovated stadium -- but Harbaugh's name hit the coaching rumor mill during the offseason, most seriously with the Oakland Raiders and New York Jets.

Things got complicated. The source of some of those rumors was a Web site co-founded by Jack Bechta, Harbaugh's agent. Athletic director Bob Bowlsby had announced in December the school had come to terms with Harbaugh on a contract extension through 2014 that would pay a reported $1.2 million a year, but the contract was never signed.

Harbaugh released a statement on Jan. 13 saying he was "100 percent committed" to Stanford. On national signing day, stealing some thunder from Harbaugh's highly rated recruiting class, it was announced that the new contract had been put on hold due to the economic downturn.

The athletic department had projected a $5 million loss over the next three years, and staff cuts and the potential elimination of some teams had the school on edge, even though $1.2 million is a below average among Pac-10 football coaches, even more so when cost of living is factored in.

Harbaugh continues to profess his loyalty to the school and he insists the tabled contract isn't a problem.

"It just got to the point where it didn't feel right to talk about personal compensation with the way this economy is," he said. "People are getting laid off all over the country and here at the university. We trust it will happen when it happens.

"Bottom line. Cut to the chase of the whole thing. We're just too emotionally tied to this job. Physically, emotionally, tied to this job. We can't leave. We don't want to leave. We want to build something here 15 or 20 years out that's going to be a great program. That's the vision.

"The only part of that you can't do is swear to God to that. You say it to people, you look them in they eye, and they kind of look back at you and say, 'What's he really saying?' This is what we're really saying. We're going to be here a long time. We're fighting to keep this job. I want to be here 15 to 20 years."

No one can accuse Harbaugh of slacking off amid these distractions. That's really not in his nature. Consider his mantra, printed under his picture on the inside cover of the spring media guide: "We will attack this day with enthusiasm unknown to mankind."

Last year, Harbaugh decided his team needed to get tougher and develop a "blue collar" attitude. So he distributed blue shirts that looked like something a guy who fixed transmissions might wear.

Call it hokey, but Stanford not only ended up the No. 2 rushing team in the Pac-10 with just under 200 yards per game, it also developed a reputation as a team that would play aggressively until the final echo of the whistle. A very faint final echo in some cases.

And so Stanford, the most elite academic institution in the FBS, earned a reputation for physical, sometimes even dirty, football. White collars turn blue.

"I've got relatives in Kentucky who whittle -- blue collar is in our blood," Harbaugh said. "It is a privilege to be at Stanford... So it's about respecting the people who put us in this position. Somebody -- a parent, a grandparent -- somebody did the blue collar work to put us in this position. Somebody went to a job they did not enjoy going to but they went to it because they wanted to make a better life for their family."

Last year, it was about getting physical. This year, it's about doing things faster, and not just because Harbaugh has substantially upgraded the Cardinal's athleticism. So says the sign in the football office: "Stanford football is hustle. Constant hustle. Hustling all the time."

With so many starters returning from a team that went 5-7 and lost two games by a field goal and a third by a touchdown, the expectation is a bowl game in 2009. The Cardinal opens with two games on the road, at Washington State and Wake Forest, but then seven of the next 10 are at home, including visits from Notre Dame and Bay Area rival California on the season's final two weekends.

Stanford Stadium, which underwent a $100 million remodel before the 2006 season, only sold out for the first time last year when USC visited on Nov. 15. It's hard to believe that if the Cardinal pushes into the top half of the conference, those final two won't be played before full-houses.

"I don't know how you couldn't want to watch these guys play football," Harbaugh said.

Even if it's hard to figure out who's playing where.