Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let your hands not be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well.

Ecclesiastes 11:6

Two weeks ago, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh deemed the Wolverines’ quarterback competition “biblical.”  Calling on the excerpt above, Harbaugh’s decision to start senior Cade McNamara Week One and sophomore J.J. McCarthy Week Two was him priming the soil, the dueling quarterbacks assuming the role of seeds.

It’s a philosophy rooted in competition. Each gets a chance to prove their worth, to succeed and claim the role of the starter. But until one of the quarterbacks wins the job, each has a chance to grow.

The application of it is unprecedented — not naming a starter before the season — but the doctrine driving Harbaugh’s decision is one he’s held since the beginning of his career:

Competition breeds excellence.


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In 2005, Harbaugh entered his second year as head coach at the University of San Diego. In his first season at the helm, Harbaugh led the Toreros to a respectable 7-4 record, but it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t excellent.

Harbaugh did everything he could to change that.

“This was University of San Diego, it’s non-scholarship FCS football, right?” Andrew Rolin, a true freshman quarterback in 2005 under Harbaugh, told The Daily. “… So the amount of people you can bring in is a little skewed.”

And Harbaugh took advantage. In Rolin’s class, Harbaugh brought in seven quarterbacks — in addition to those already on roster. Heading into camp, there were 10 quarterbacks vying for one position, and they all had one option: compete, or leave.

Some of them fell by the wayside. “Weaker” competitors, as Rolin put it, that couldn’t mentally handle the competition or simply weren’t talented enough to hang around dropped out until only the worthy remained. It’s exactly what Harbaugh wanted.

The epitome of the journey through Harbaugh’s Inferno came as the Toreros were preparing for their first game of that 2005 season.

The scout team offense was facing off against the first team defense, prepping the defenders for their opponent. Though the focus of the practice was on the defense, nothing could pry Harbaugh’s gaze from the quarterbacks and his lust for constant competition.

“We were already exhausted,” Rolin remembers. “… (Harbaugh) turned to the quarterbacks and said, ’Hey, here’s the deal. If you throw an incompletion at all during this period, you don’t get a rep the rest of the day.’ ”

As time went on, quarterback after quarterback was eliminated. Numbers dwindled as they fell short of Harbaugh’s demand for perfection until, eventually, none were left.

“We’re kind of looking around — here we are, true freshmen — around like, ’Hey, who’s next?’ ” Rolin said.

The answer trotted himself onto the field. Tucking his whistle into his shirt and turning his hat backwards, Harbaugh assumed the position under center. For the rest of the day, Harbaugh was the quarterback.

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It’s that level of intensity that a Harbaugh quarterback competition demands. He will get the best out of who he’s got, and if that’s not enough, he’ll find the person who is — even if it’s himself.

It doesn’t stop at quarterbacks, either. Harbaugh is going to force a competitive edge out of everyone, sharpening them through combat.

“He always tried to bring in somebody to replace me,” former San Diego running back JT Rogan told The Daily. “And there are really two ways to look at it, you can be offended, or you can rise to the challenge and rise to the occasion.”

Rogan knows a lot about Harbaugh’s psyche. During Rogan’s coaching career, he was deemed Harbaugh’s “right hand man,” and held a position as his director of operations and communications at Michigan. It gave Rogan a look into the inner workings of Harbaugh’s doctrine — one of constant battle and drive that rubs off on the players and coaches around him. And it all stems from his own experiences.

“There might not be anybody more sensitive to a quarterback competition, and more understanding to a quarterback competition than him,” Rogan said. “Because he came out and backed up Jim McMahon. … Through his NFL career, his NFL coaching career and even through his college coaching career, he’s had to manage so many different quarterback situations.”

At Michigan, too, the eventual Heisman candidate fought tooth and nail to be QB1. Harbaugh was at best QB3 his first two years, behind Steve Smith and Dave Hall. It wasn’t until his redshirt sophomore season that Harbaugh took command of the offense.

In the NFL, besides backing up McMahon, Harbaugh found himself locked in quarterback bouts year after year. Sometimes he’d make his way to the top, others he’d lose the job to another passer. But year in and year out, he competed.

That made its way into his coaching style. The best guy — in Harbaugh’s eyes — would get the nod, even if one of them was established and the other unproven. Harbaugh has restated that stance throughout fall camp: The best players will play.

“(Harbaugh pulled) Alex Smith, NFC Championship-caliber quarterback, having to replace him for the newer, shinier model with Colin Kaepernick,” Rogan recalled of Harbaugh’s time as head coach of the 49’ers. “And that turned out to not be a bad decision, and obviously Kaepernick performed really well.”

It all circles back to Harbaugh’s favorite word: meritocracy.

“I think that (the best approach is) challenging the status quo and allowing for football to be a meritocracy, like (Harbaugh) said, and let the best players win and earn your opportunity,” Rogan said. “And by your performance, just as a tree bears fruit, you shall be known — he sometimes goes Biblical with it.”


For a good tree does not bear bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. For every tree is known by its own fruit. For men do not gather figs from thorns, nor do they gather grapes from a bramble bush.

Luke 6:43-44

It’s part of Harbaugh’s dogma. Good players will yield good results, great players will yield great results and players that aren’t good enough will bear no fruit at all. Competition is the sun, the water and the soil that feeds it.

If competition forces a player to transfer, or causes them to give up, they were never meant for a Harbaugh-led program. That’s why the current situation for Michigan under center is so intense — both McNamara and McCarthy are built to handle the pressures Harbaugh throws at them.

But the time for results is now, and a decision is coming. McNamara has already had his chance to show what he can bear. Now, it’s McCarthy’s turn to show his growth.

And as always, Harbaugh sits below the trees, waiting for the fruit to fall.