Harbaugh throws in the towel

J. Michael Moore

Western experienced the unexpected Friday when Jack Harbaugh, the man who led the Hilltoppers to a Division I-AA National Championship nearly three months ago, resigned.

Administrators are now left with only one month to find a coach before spring practice begins.

At 2 p.m. Friday, Harbaugh, the Hilltoppers’ coach for the past 14 years, stepped down, tendering his resignation in President Gary Ransdell’s office.

The 63-year-old coach said Saturday he’s lost the energy to continue coaching on such a high level.

At least for now.

“My tank’s empty,” he said. “I need two or three months to step back and look at some of the options that Jackie and I have … I just don’t have the same energy.”

He said he chose to resign rather than retire because he has no intention of abandoning the coaching ranks, which have been a part of his life for the past 41 years.

“I am totally committed to the fact I’m not retired,” he said. “I have no intention of retiring.”

Harbaugh left town yesterday morning to visit family, including his sons Jim and John, both NFL coaches, and his daughter, Joani, wife of Marquette basketball coach Tom Crean.

John Harbaugh, special team’s coach for the Philadelphia Eagles, said yesterday he is happy for his father.

John Harbaugh was told of his father’s intentions on Tuesday.

“He has accomplished so much there,” the younger Harbaugh said. “He’s left the program in great shape.”

John said he could not speak for his father, but said that off-the field issues, including a well-documented contract dispute before the 2001 season, contributed to his father’s decision.

“It was a traumatic period of time,” Jack Harbaugh said.

“The contract was not the problem, the process was the problem … I guess you get on there, and it got personal … It affected me,” he said.

Harbaugh eventually signed a new contract on Aug. 17, 2001.

Athletics Director Wood Selig and Ransdell plan to move quickly in hiring Harbaugh’s replacement.

No plans of naming an interim head coach have surfaced.

The list of possible candidates is a long one, Selig said.

He said a few names were being collected before Harbaugh resigned, given the coach’s age and tenure.

“I think you always have three or four people you keep your eye on and follow,” Selig said. “We’re going to go after the best person.”

Selig said faxes, e-mails and phone calls concerning the position have come into his office daily since Harbaugh’s resignation became official this weekend.

Players were shocked by Harbaugh’s departure.

“He talked with us about how he felt,” junior linebacker Erik Dandy said. “I understand where he’s coming from, there’s other things he wants to do … He’s done everything he can do as a college coach.”

The team met with Selig and Ransdell shortly after speaking with Harbaugh Friday and gave their recommendations for a replacement.

“We’re trying to figure out who our prospect might be,” Selig said. “We want someone who knows Western … Someone who understands the dynamics of I-AA football.”

Dandy said most of the players recommended a replacement come from the Western family, including former defensive coordinator David Elson, who’s now at West Virginia, Western offensive coordinator Willie Taggart and assistant coach T.J. Weist.

“We’ve got a few coaches that could qualify to be a head coach,” Dandy said. “We just want to keep it in the family, rather than bringing in some outsider who doesn’t know anything and bring in his own staff.”

Taggart is a 1998 Western graduate and one of only three Hilltoppers to have his jersey retired.

Weist is finishing his first season at Western, and Elson left Western last month to take the job at West Virginia.

Taggart and Elson could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Former co-offensive coordinator Keven Lightner, who left the staff in January to coach at New Mexico State, says his pick is Taggert.

“In my opinion, Willie Taggert is Mr. Western Kentucky,” Lightner said. “I know he was really interested in that job. I talk to Willie quite a bit. He wants it.”

Former Western football coach and athletics director Jimmy Feix helped bring Harbaugh to the Hill in 1989. The news of the coach’s resignation shocked Feix.

“I was just devastated,” Feix said. “I think he was sort of worn down. Now just looks like a good time. That’s what he told me, and that’s what I’ll accept.”

Harbaugh was named the American Football Coaches Association’s Coach of the Year after last season’s 12-3 finish.

Ransdell said Harbaugh may not have left the university had his team had not captured a national championship.

Selig said any bad blood between Harbaugh and himself that may have brewed during the contract negotiations two years ago has been blown out of proportion.

“Everyone likes to think that the two sides were yelling at each other daily back and forth,” Selig said. “Quite frankly, I think the media did a good job at bringing that front and center … It’s a shame something can’t be just what it is.”

Selig said during an hour-and-a-half phone conversation Sunday night, he and Harbaugh “covered the gamut,” including the topic of Harbaugh’s successor.

Selig was with Harbaugh last Monday and Tuesday in St. Louis for Gateway Football Conference meetings. He said Harbaugh mentioned nothing about a resignation.

“I’m not surprised in the sense that maybe the last couple of years he’s been thinking more about retirement than ever,” Selig said. “I think we’re all happy for Jack that he elected to go out on top.”

Former Herald reporter Kyle Tucker contributed to this report.

Reach J. Michael Moore at [email protected]