Long before he was a Super Bowl coach, Jim Harbaugh was a pretty darn good quarterback.
Recruited by Bo Schembechler at the University of Michigan, Harbaugh became the Wolverines starter by his sophomore campaign. As a senior, he was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy and ultimately finished third.
Figuring out the very real possibility that Jim McMahon would not be able to continue to withstand an NFL pounding long-term, the Chicago Bears selected Harbaugh with the 26th overall pick of the 1987 NFL Draft. By 1990 Harbaugh was the Bears starter.
In 1991 I selected Harbaugh late in a fantasy football draft.
“Nice safe pick,” said one of my rivals, adding, “He won’t hurt you.”
This was after I had drafted Mark Rypien (who would win NFC Player of the Year and Super Bowl MVP that year) and then Steve Young in case a certain starting QB in San Francisco would not be able to ring the bell. Days later the widely speculated elbow injury of Joe Montana would result in season-ending surgery.
Oh yes, the days before the Internet and ESPN bottom-line scrolls, the days of running to local libraries to find any newspaper I could get my hands on for any possible scoop…
This leads me to a Monday Night game on September 23, 1991, where Harbaugh first earned the Captain Comeback moniker. It was a night that I remember very well, as it appeared that the Bears were about to lose to the New York Jets – until a late Blair Thomas fumble (who was also on my fantasy team and had a nice statistical night) revived Chicago’s hopes.
The Bears took over at the Jets’ 38, but Harbaugh was quickly sacked by Dennis Byrd. On third and 18 Harbaugh threw a 14-yard pass to Tom Waddle that led to a makeable fourth down situation, which the Bears converted.
Chicago eventually got into a first-and-goal situation, but Harbaugh would be sacked again, this time by Jeff Lageman. Then an incompletion. Then Harbaugh scrambles to the four and is brought down.
Fourth down. No time outs. Clock ticking. :09, :08, :07, :06 …
Harbaugh finally gets his team set and snaps the ball at :03 – Lageman almost gets him again, but Harbaugh instead finds running back Neal Anderson for the game-tying touchdown.
The Bears would later win late in overtime. Jim Harbaugh threw an apparent 18-yard game-winning TD to tight end Cap Boso (an even greater tight end name than Bear Pascoe or Clay Harbor), only to be ruled down at the one by instant replay (yes, they had it in 1991) as the teams were leaving the field.
For whatever reason Mike Ditka did not bring the field goal unit on at this point and Harbaugh would end the game on the next play by scoring on a QB sneak.
Harbaugh led the Bears to the playoffs that year but would later crash out of Chicago, like many Bears quarterbacks before and since.
The next act of Jim Harbaugh’s career would take him down Interstate 65 to the Indianapolis Colts and his finest season.
In 1995 Harbaugh would throw for 17 touchdown passes against only five interceptions, good for a quarterback rating of 100.7.
More importantly, Harbaugh would lead the usually dismal franchise to their second playoff appearance in what was then their 12th year in Indiana. As a Wild Card team, Harbaugh and the Colts shocked pro football observers by upsetting the San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs before falling just short in a classic AFC Championship tilt to the Steelers.
Those who remember Harbaugh during that playoff run may remember Harbaugh as an openly religious man who openly talked about his faith during post-game TV interviews. He was like Kurt Warner and even Tim Tebow in later years – he was going to thank Christ before talking about the game.
Incidentally, a Christian website penned an article on the spiritual aspect of Harbaugh’s life this week, noting that religion is still very much part of his life. The article shed light on Harbaugh’s annual missionary trip to Peru – and that he now chooses to talk about his faith to those in the religious community as opposed to mainstream media.
Harbaugh would go on to play a couple more seasons in Indianapolis, got sacked by a rookie linebacker named Ray Lewis, and in all played 15 years in the NFL. He remained a popular and marketable figure, even starring in a somewhat creepy ESPN spot in which he was undergoing “surgery.” At the time there was still a very-much light-sided part of him.
In his later playing days Harbaugh started the slow transition from quarterback to coaching by being employed as an unpaid staff member for father Jack Harbaugh at Western Kentucky University, doing recruiting work in the off-season.
Eventually we saw the change from Jim Harbaugh the quarterback to the overly intense coach we see today. Eventually Harbaugh would make the decision to cut his teeth as a Division II coach at the University of San Diego. Then Stanford. Then the 49ers, and the rest is quickly becoming history.
And it all started by earning his stripes under Bo Schembechler and Mike Ditka. That along with his own fire, has made Jim Harbaugh a stunningly successful coach.
And now he is only one game away from a World Championship and being mentioned in the same breath as Bill Walsh and George Seifert.