Jim Harbaugh won his 70th game out of 100 as a college head football coach Saturday, but he was once 1-3. And the loss that put him at 1-3 came on Sept. 25, 2004, when his San Diego team lost to Princeton, 24-17.
One of the crushing blows in that game was a Todd Mortensen interception with 3:45 to play. Mortensen, a senior transfer from Brigham Young, went to the sideline, and Harbaugh’s reaction — like everything else about Michigan’s second-year head coach — was familiar.
“I could tell he was disappointed, because he’s competitive, and he wants to win as much or more than anyone. But I didn’t get chewed out in the moment,” Mortensen said. “… I don’t even remember what he said, because his reaction was so supportive, it didn’t make a lasting impression on me.”
What Mortensen does recall is what happened the next day in San Diego’s film session. Harbaugh showed his quarterback the film. He taught him how to avoid the mistake in the future. And most importantly, he stuck with his guy during the low point of the season.
Mortensen didn’t make any more glaring mistakes, the offense averaged 44 points in the last eight games and the Toreros finished 7-1.
“From that game on, I never had a game where I felt like I was the reason we didn’t win the game,” Mortensen said.
When Mortensen visited Ann Arbor last year for the Michigan-BYU game, he introduced himself to then-Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock, who had a similar renaissance in the second half of last year, breaking out after a few rough games.
Last weekend, redshirt sophomore Wilton Speight entered the exclusive fraternity of Harbaugh’s starting quarterbacks. That club comes with a number of perks, including the mentorship of a coach who once starred at the position himself and has strong ties to the NFL.
But there’s another advantage to being Harbaugh’s quarterback, and it may be the most important one: complete, undying loyalty.
Of the 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, 17 played multiple quarterbacks in their season opener (for reasons other than injuries and blowouts). They weren’t insignificant names, either: Alabama’s Nick Saban, Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly and Texas’ Charlie Strong all hadn’t picked a definitive starter at the most important position in sports.
Needless to say, Harbaugh was not like them. He went with Speight after an eight-month competition — though he didn’t disclose it until kickoff — and will now almost certainly stick with Speight for the rest of the season, barring injury.
In fact, in his years in college, Harbaugh has almost never allowed a quarterback controversy. This is his ninth year as a college head coach. Only once has he had two quarterbacks throw more than 25 passes each in a season. His backups play only due to injuries or in garbage time. He picks his guy and rolls with him.
And however he feels about his team, however his team fares, he is completely unwavering in his support of the starting quarterback.
Start with last season, when Harbaugh gave graduate transfer Jake Rudock the nod over then-redshirt sophomore Shane Morris. Through three games, Michigan was 2-1 and Rudock had thrown for fewer than 200 yards per game and three touchdowns against just five interceptions. The following Monday, Harbaugh faced a question about where Rudock could improve, which he took as an insinuation of doubt at the position.
“Just, the question, to me — just the way you started the question off after the game, it’s like questions to divide and compare,” Harbaugh said. “… I sense sometimes the questions to compare and be divisive, so I’m quick to turn those off.”
Asked a follow-up, Harbaugh defended Rudock again: “To be clear, Jake Rudock’s the best quarterback. Not by a small margin. He’s our best quarterback. … I feel it’s divisive when you just pull out one name to just keep hammering; there, there, so hope that’s clear. He’s our best quarterback.”
As much as Rudock struggled in the first third of the season, Harbaugh wasn’t having any criticism, inquisition or even the slightest hint of an ambiguity at quarterback.
And his faith paid off, as Rudock polished off one of the best single seasons for a quarterback in Michigan history, leading the Wolverines to a 10-3 season.
That progress at quarterback has been Harbaugh’s track record throughout his coaching career. In 2004 at San Diego, his first head coaching job, Harbaugh chose Mortensen, who started all season. When Mortensen left, his old backup, Josh Johnson, took over for 2005 and 2006.
The 2007 season was the only one of Harbaugh’s career with even a little ambiguity. That was when Harbaugh inherited a struggling program at Stanford and waffled between T.C. Ostrander (who started the first four games and the last one) and Tavita Pritchard (who got the nod in between).
In 2008, Harbaugh settled on Pritchard, and in 2009, he started a young redshirt freshman named Andrew Luck. Of Harbaugh’s all-time college starters, Johnson, Luck and Rudock — that’s half of them if you’re counting at home — are still in the NFL.
Now, Speight is the latest of Harbaugh’s pupils with that opportunity. In two starts, the results have been positive, albeit against lesser competition: Speight is 35-for-50 for 457 yards with seven touchdowns and an interception.
But even during Speight’s costly mistakes — or mistake, singular, rather — Harbaugh has stood by him all the way, as usual.
The blip happened on the first offensive snap of the season opener. Speight rolled out to the right and tossed the ball into the waiting arms of Hawaii’s Damien Packer. Then Speight’s momentum carried him over to the sideline, where Harbaugh had an unusual reaction.
“He just grabbed me and hugged me and was kind of laughing and was like, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get it next drive. Don’t sweat about that,’ ” Speight recalled.
Laughing? This is a man who doesn’t take a play off in pickup basketball games. And here’s his hand-picked starting quarterback giving the ball away on the first play of the first game, and Harbaugh laughs?
It sounds crazy, but it works. Speight will make more mistakes the rest of the season, but in Harbaugh, he has a quarterback’s most loyal ally.