If you look you can find some San Diego in Saturday’s 49ers/New Orleans playoff game. This, by the way, is as close to the NFL playoffs as we’re likely to get as long as Norv, A.J., and Cap’n Dean have the wheel.
New Orleans will show up at Candlestick Park with their All-World quarterback, Drew Brees, who, not that long ago, was quarterbacking for San Diego. The Chargers drafted him in 2001 and he became starting quarterback the following year. Brees remained in San Diego through the 2005 season. The Saints offered him a six-year, $60 million contract with $10 million guaranteed. Chargers passed.
At the time, New Orleans was the village idiot of the NFL. Being traded to New Orleans was like being shipped off to the Republic of Cameroon. One was traded to Swampland and never heard from again. As the 2006 season opened, New Orleans was coming off a 3-13 season, guarding a formidable history of losing. The Saints didn’t make the playoffs until the 20th year of their existence. They didn’t win a playoff game until their 33rd year. And that’s where things stood when Brees showed up in 2006, just in time to celebrate a 40th season of despair.
Since then, since leaving San Diego for football obscurity, Brees has been selected to five Pro Bowls, named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year, and named Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year. When New Orleans won Super Bowl XLIV, Brees was crowned Super Bowl MVP.
It’s futile to wonder what would have happened if Brees had stayed with the Chargers. Still, if I had to guess, I’d say Norv Turner would have sucked the life out of him until he became another reliable underachiever. The man has his ways.
The 49ers have a tight connection to San Diego by way of their head coach and once Coronado resident, Jim Harbaugh. He was a Chargers quarterback in 1999 and 2000, at the end of his NFL career, joining a list of other over-the-hill quarterbacks who once worked for the Bolts (Johnny Unitas, Jim McMahon, Doug Flutie).
Harbaugh has a gold standard football pedigree. Son of a football coach, who coached at Michigan and Stanford (defensive coordinator). His brother, John, is head coach of the Baltimore Ravens. His sister, Joani, is married to Indiana University men’s basketball head coach Tom Crean.
Harbaugh was a three-year starter at Michigan, won the All This and All That awards. And blah, blah, blah.
Came into the NFL in 1987 as a first-round draft pick for Chicago. Lasted 15 years in the NFL, which is four-plus times longer than the average NFL player gets. But, he never became a name quarterback, never a Favre, Montana, Manning, or Brady.
Harbaugh always has a plan. All the way through his past eight seasons in the NFL he worked as an unpaid assistant coach for his dad, who was then head coach at Western Kentucky University. Young Harbaugh was an offensive assistant, scout, and recruiter. In 2002, Western Kentucky won the Division II national championship and Harbaugh took a job with the Oakland Raiders as underling and assistant coach, graduating to quarterbacks coach in 2003.
Then, his first head-coaching position at the University of San Diego. USD plays Division II football in the non-scholarship, football-only, ten-team Pioneer Football League. Other than San Diego, all members, save for Drake University, are east of the Mississippi. So, Harbaugh played in a no-name Division II conference, had no scholarships to hand out, his school had an in-state tuition of $30,704, conference members were thousands of miles distant; in other words, his life was a Class A recruiting nightmare. He coached USD football for three years (2004, 2005, 2006), won the Pioneer Football League championship in ’05 and ’06.
In December 2006, Harbaugh got a battlefield promotion to Division I, Pac-12 beauty subdivision, otherwise known as Stanford.
The team finished 2006 (the last pre-Harbaugh season) with a 1-11 record. Harbaugh had that losing program playing in a bowl three years later, went 12-1 the following year, and beat Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl. Stanford was ranked fourth in the nation when Coach moved on to the NFL.
He took over a San Francisco team whose ownership is bizarre, even by NFL standards. The team did not have a winning record over the previous eight seasons, fielded a quarterback who played as if he had PTSD, the owners preferred living in Youngstown, Ohio, and had gone through five head coaches in eight years. Harbaugh took that team, in his first year, to a 13-3 regular season record.
He’s a better coach than he was a quarterback. Incredible.