Chapter 1: Meet the new boss, not the same as the old boss

January 12, 2018 | Nestor Aparicio

coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys in 2013.

“To be honest with you I didn’t even realize that Ray Rhodes was in trouble,” Harbaugh said. “I wasn’t sophisticated enough about the politics and all of that. I just knew it was a job in the NFL and that if I did a good job someone would want me and the letters ‘N-F-L’ would be on my resume. And if the worst thing is that I have to go back and get a college job again, I would be fine with that. I loved college football.”

Harbaugh joined Rhodes’ staff that included future New Orleans Saints head coaches Sean Payton and Joe Vitt. The Eagles played great on special teams despite a 3-13 campaign and Harbaugh learned early about the value of a franchise quarterback after watching Bobby Hoying, Koy Detmer and Rodney Peete struggle through the 1998 season.

Despite the record, he liked his young core of guys led by Ike Reese. But as predicted or even expected, Rhodes did get fired nine months later and Harbaugh managed to remain on Andy Reid’s staff as one of four holdover coaches because he had done such a good job and had impressed the Eagles’ personnel men who made the transition through Rhodes’ departure.

Along with Reid, John Harbaugh put together a fantastic run in Philadelphia, staying with the same head coach in the same place for a decade in the NFL with incredible success and continuity and the likes of kicker David Akers, punter Sean Landeta (whose roots were in Baltimore and at Towson State) and returner Brian Mitchell.

Harbaugh was the special teams coach for the Eagles for nine seasons and began looking to expand his resume after his Donovan McNabb-led team nearly beat Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville in 2005.

Harbaugh, much like his father and his brother, wanted to be a head coach. He had watched his brother Jim quickly work his way through the ladder of coaching as an offensive assistant for the Oakland Raiders’ Super Bowl team in 2002 with Rich Gannon to become the head coach of the San Diego Toreros 1-AA program in 2004 and was en route to Stanford in 2007 as a Big 10 head coach.

John Harbaugh started putting together some slide shows and binder presentations and wanted to pad his resume to work toward becoming a college head coach. He loved coaching special teams, but he knew it was a difficult psychological stretch for an NFL owner or an athletic director or school president to see their head coach coming in as a special teams coordinator.

Harbaugh had a whole binder for Duke University. He had twice dabbled with the notion of becoming the head coach at the University of Cincinnati. There were rumors about Western Michigan, where he and his father began in 1984. Ball State was a possibility at one point. Maybe even his alma mater, Miami of Ohio, would welcome him back with open arms at some point if that was a place he’d want to settle with his family? He also dreamed of working with his brother again and they discussed Stanford and some options when Jim arrived in Palo Alto.

But after a decade in the NFL and life in the professional ranks, it’d be hard to take a job at the college level that wasn’t at a major program and wasn’t as a head coach.

Harbaugh’s closest approach was an interview a year earlier in 2007 for the head coaching position at Boston College that eventually went to Jeff Jagodzinski.

Harbaugh knew that being branded as a “special team coach” would hurt his chances of getting a college head coach job if he didn’t branch out. Eagles head coach Andy Reid offered Harbaugh a chance to coach the defensive backs in 2007 and he jumped at the opportunity to work with defensive coordinator Jim Johnson.

The 2007 Philadelphia Eagles were nothing special on either side of the ball and during the second week of December with the Eagles struggling at 5-8, Harbaugh got a call from Bill Reese, who was heading up a search committee to find the next head coach of the UCLA Bruins.

“I was surprised that I had a shot, to be honest with you,” Harbaugh said. “They came to Philly and interviewed me because it was in the middle of the season. My brother was already at Stanford by then so the whole thing was strange, being in the same conference. By Thursday, I was in Los Angeles doing the second interview and it felt like I had a real chance.

“Their athletic director had flown me back to California. I was supposed to meet with the president and then it wasn’t going to happen. And then I finally met with him and he was hammering me about having never been a head coach, which is something I had heard at every interview I’d ever had. It’s all we talked about.”

Harbaugh thought that answer was easy: “Everybody who’s ever been a head coach had to get their first job, right?”

UCLA said they would call at noon on Saturday. That morning Harbaugh was watching the morning sports ticker and there were reports out of Los Angeles that he was getting the job and he actually saw a television crawl with “John Harbaugh to be named UCLA coach” on it and thought to himself, “Well, we’re gonna find out soon if that’s true.”

At noon, the phone rang. Bruins’ athletic director Dan Guerrero had decided to go with then-Baltimore Ravens quarterbacks coach and legacy UCLA quarterback Rick Neuheisel as the new