Jim Harbaugh is America’s favorite football coach to psycho-analyze.
Fans puzzle over Harbaugh running up the score on USC and Pete Carroll, slapping Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz on the back and playing touch football shirtless at a satellite recruiting camp in Alabama. Media members know the empty feeling of Harbaugh staring through them after a question.
The intrigue has intensified this week with Harbaugh having returned to Michigan as head coach and lifting his alma mater to a 5-1 start. Does he have a quirky surprise for us when No. 7 Michigan State (6-0) faces No. 12 Michigan Saturday in Ann Arbor?
But Nebraska coach Mike Riley, Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst and former NFL quarterback Moses Moreno say Harbaugh’s personality is much simpler than perception. He was a humble teammate who transferred his football knowledge to the coaching ranks with his blue-collar mentality.
To see part of the picture, roll the videotape back to the Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon on July 31 in Chicago. The Big Ten Network’s Dave Revsine gathered Harbaugh, Riley and Chryst for an interview session before the ballroom audience and BTN viewers.
The trio shared the stage as first-year Big Ten head coaches, but they also discussed their time together with the San Diego Chargers in 1999 and 2000. Riley was the Chargers’ head coach, Chryst the tight ends coach and Harbaugh the starting quarterback. Moreno was Harbaugh’s backup.
Riley and Chryst revealed an untold story on the broadcast about Harbaugh yielding playing time to allow Moreno to finish the 1999 regular season finale at Denver. Harbaugh had been injured and could have returned, but he noted Moreno was playing well and remained on the sideline. Generally speaking, starting quarterbacks don’t give up the ball unless carted off the field.
“To me, that is Jim, the team and the game,” Chryst said. “And that I appreciate.”
Moreno said he never knew the second part of the story until I relayed it to him this week. He wasn’t surprised.
“Jim was a great a teammate and the kind of guy who always had your back,” Moreno said. “He would stand shoulder to shoulder with you regardless where you fell on the depth chart or the roster. You were fortunate to be his teammate.”
To recap, Moreno replaced Harbaugh as he left the field for the locker room in the second half. Moreno moved the chains enough to run the clock and preserve the victory. He was 5 of 7 passing for 78 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. His big play was a 45-yard completion that flipped field position and ran more time off the clock.
But before that long pass, the game was still in doubt as Harbaugh returned from the locker room to the sideline.
“I thought, ‘Alright, we’re good. Jim is coming back into the game,’ ” Chryst said. “But Jim never came back into the game. Afterward I stopped by Jim’s locker. I said, ‘Sorry you couldn’t play the rest of the game.’ He said, ‘I could have played. Moses was playing great. It was fun to watch him and we won the game. It was a great day.”
But then Chryst learned Harbaugh’s magnanimity was at the expense of his own wallet.
“He said the only thing that disappointed him was that he missed out on a bonus — playing time — that was three times my salary,” Chryst said. “I looked at him and said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ He said, ‘No, really, Paul, we won the game and Moses played great.’”
Harbaugh deferring also allowed Moreno to enjoy one of the finest moments of his career. He was a San Diego hometown kid leading the Chargers in Denver while old friends and teammates from his days at Colorado State were in attendance at old Mile High Stadium.
“I doubt that crossed Jim’s mind, but that game is special to me,” Moreno said. “On that long completion to Jeff Graham, I remember Bill Romanowski was coming off the edge and I stepped up into the pocket. With the moment and the adrenaline rushing through me, I got in his face to antagonize him.”
To Moreno, Harbaugh’s selflessness allowed him to transition to coaching. Many star players lack patience to coach athletes with less talent. Harbaugh didn’t play the role of the entitled quarterback.
“Jim was Michigan’s quarterback, the Chicago Bears quarterback and Captain Comeback (with Indianapolis), but he always had a blue-collar mentality,” Moreno said. “Jim was never a ‘me’ guy. It was always about the team, and that’s why guys respected him.”
After Moreno’s playing days, he took over running a long-time family business in the San Diego suburb of Chula Vista, Able Heating and Air Conditioning. But thanks to Harbaugh’s “coaching,” he’s remained in touch with the game.
“When Jim and I would stand on the sidelines, we talked about how easy officials have it,” Moreno said. “We talked about being officials someday. I got involved a few years ago. I’ve had my own crew for San Diego high school games the last three years.”
As for that bonus Harbaugh forfeited, Revsine explained that away to the Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon audience and BTN viewers during the interview.
“I read some news reports,” Revsine said. “I think ultimately he got some money. He’s doing alright.”