Not one trophy sits on the shelf behind Jack Harbaugh’s desk.
No, not one.
That space is instead reserved for the symbols the 63-year-old Western coach has collected in his 41-year journey to what everyone keeps telling him is the pinnacle of his coaching career.
But the truth is, old football coaches like Harbaugh don’t need trophies. They only need simple reminders of where they’ve been, which help them figure out where to go next.
And for Harbaugh, those things have been mementos like pictures that need Windex and old, tattered signs clinging to rusty thumbtacks.
Pictures of guys like Don Nehlen, his former coach and mentor at Bowling Green State, and former Michigan coach Bo Schembachler, whom Harbaugh coached under for seven years in the 1970s.
Signs that whispered of extinction like, “Those who stay will be champions” after the program nearly went south in the early 1990s and catchy battle cries from seasons passed, such as the 2002 “FINISH” that was ridden all the way to Western’s first football national championship adorn the wall.
“If he (Harbaugh) hadn’t dug in his heels the way he did, it would’ve died,” said legendary former Hilltoppers’ coach and athletic director Jimmy Feix in regards to the program nearly going under.
Awards and trophies will never talk like that. And they usually look better in a living room or den anyway.
“I guess the word is ‘blessed,’ but I’m not sure I know what the right word is,” Harbaugh said. “What this championship has done is show me how the game of football has allowed me and my wife and family to experience the good people that have been a part of our lives. It staggered me.”
It apparently has shaken a few other people Harbaugh knows, as well.
Sometime in the near future, no doubt, Harbaugh might go nuts and add his 2002 American Football Coaches Association Coach of the Year trophy to his stack of treasured past reminders.
My guess? Not a chance.
But he might be inclined to fold up and carefully place a letter or two in an empty corner.
Around 40 to 45 of Harbaugh’s former players representing almost every season he’s coached at Western lined the stands at the Dec. 20 championship game in Chattanooga. In the weeks since that game, he has received probably triple that number in letters of congratulation.
“Seeing those former players in the stands just showed me how much of a football fraternity we have here for guys who’ve worn the red and white jersey — that so many people feel ownership in what we try to do here,” Harbaugh said. “They bought into it, and part of that trophy is theirs.”
And that is what trophies have always meant for Harbaugh. A symbol of the achievements and accomplishments of others.
“If I hadn’t been part of this team and championship, it wouldn’t have been crushing. A trophy is just a symbol,” Harbaugh said. “But if it were not for this experience (winning a title), I would have went to my grave not knowing the magnitude these past 41 years have had in people I’ve been privileged to know.”
People like Cedric Allen, a good but not great junior college transfer who played at Western in the early 1990s. Harbaugh says Allen, a successful businessman today, spoke to him briefly about how the work ethic and values he learned while at Western helped him.
“We try to build the whole person here — we are educators first — and I think that is an area where a lot of football programs around the country are getting away from,” Harbaugh said. “This is not my plan.” BEGINITAL He pauses and takes a moment to compliment those that aided him in helping guys like Allen. ENDITAL “I’m just following the guys that came before me, and (I) just happen to be the steward at the time,” he finishes.
And that is the thing that separates Harbaugh from just another coach who has won his championship. It has taken some 40 years, but for the first time, he isn’t just the average coach doing humble things.
“He brought us from extinction to the top of the mountain,” said former Western play-by-play man Wes Strader. “He and (wife) Jackie are the biggest part of the program’s success.”
And for the first time he is being forced to sit in that old desk amongst old pictures and fading signs and see them for what they are: bread crumbs of a lifetime spent touching the lives of young men who will one day be grooming other young men to hopefully be better grown men than they ever were.
Harbaugh knows the end is near and that if he finishes the final two years of his current contract, he won’t sign another. All he wants and all he has ever wanted is to be talked about after he is gone the way people talk about the men he has had the opportunity to call his bosses.
But while retirement is a very real and close proposition, one thing keeps his mind on football.
“I have been fired before during my career. I was fired because we didn’t win enough games, or I was fired because they were moving in a different direction or because I wasn’t part of their thing anymore,” Harbaugh said. “It was crushing, and at times I thought maybe I shouldn’t be a part of coaching anymore. But the thing came up — what would you do if you weren’t part of coaching? And I didn’t like the alternative. Going out and playing golf never suited me. I always lose the balls in the trees. I never really had any hobbies besides football other than my wife, my family and my grand kids.”
After he’s done, Harbaugh says he might try politics.
Kyle Hightower is a sports columnist and the sports editor of the College Heights Herald.