AWARD: Harbaugh named I-AA Coach of the Year

Keith Farner

As perhaps the cherry on top of an already sweet season, head coach Jack Harbaugh was named National I-AA Coach of the Year by the American Football Coaches’ Association last Tuesday.

“I’m not really driven by awards,” Harbaugh said. “All the credit goes to the staff and the young men who put in the effort this season and made the commitment to our program.”

Quarterback Jason Michael said after the team struggled to start the season, the coach showed perseverance to lead the team to a 10-game winning streak, the longest in school history for a single season.

“It’s an honor for any team to be able to have that title,” Michael said. “It’s a great honor for him and the whole university, the type of year we had — it says a lot for the team and him.”

The 2-3 start left many fans wondering if the team could stay alive in the Gateway Conference. The team not only stayed alive, it finished 12-3 and claimed a share of the conference championship and the national title.

“Our backs were against the wall,” Harbaugh said following the first-round win over Murray State. “We continued to fight and had great senior leadership, 19 youngsters that refused to give in.”

In his 19th season as a head coach — 14 of those at Western — Harbaugh led the Hilltoppers to the first national championship in their 84-year history.

Western defeated the top three seeds in the playoffs, including a 34-14 win over McNeese State in the championship game.

“To be in the locker room with these guys — they’re warriors,” Harbaugh said after the championship game. “They looked this challenge straight in the eye and never blinked.

“There would be no possible way to explain the emotion.”

Harbaugh’s 91-68 record on the Hill includes seven consecutive winning seasons, the third longest streak in program history, and four playoff appearances in the last six years. The 63-year-old coach is second behind legendary coach Jimmy Feix in wins, games and seasons coached.

It’s the third time in five years that Harbaugh has had a Coach-of-the Year selection. The other two came from AFCA Region 3 in 1997 and 2000 after playoff appearances in those seasons.

With two seasons left on his contract, Harbaugh has said he still enjoys coaching. Any idea of going out on top has been dismissed.

And as a reward for Harbaugh’s accomplishments during the season, he’s been invited to serve as an assistant coach at the Hula Bowl on Feb. 1 in Maui, Hawaii.