At first blush, Jim Harbaugh's career arc appears familiar: Star player migrates to coaching, works as a college assistant, dabbles in the NFL, returns to campus as a mid-major head coach and parlays success there into a headliner gig.
But wait. How did Harbaugh serve as a Western Kentucky assistant for eight years while still playing in the pros?
"It was just a passion, a labor of love for my dad and the Western Kentucky football team," Harbaugh said of his coaching roots.
It was much more.
Jack Harbaugh coached Western Kentucky from 1989-2002, but shortly into his tenure the school threatened to drop football. Even when the governing board voted to spare the program, it gutted budgets, forcing Harbaugh to purge much of his staff.
Then playing nearby for the Indianapolis Colts, Jim volunteered to be his father's unpaid assistant coach in 1994. He passed NCAA tests to earn recruiting privileges and became an invaluable asset, even while making the Pro Bowl in 1995 and leading the Colts to the AFC championship game.
"Jim was very instrumental with his dad in not only keeping football at Western Kentucky but resurrecting it and winning the (Division I-AA) national championship in 2002," Old Dominion athletic director Wood Selig said. "It's really a remarkable story how the program went from its deathbed to winning the national championship."
Selig knows. He was Western Kentucky's AD from 1999-2010.
Selig saw Jim Harbaugh donate the free shoes and gear he collected in the NFL to the school, and how he placed bins in locker rooms so teammates would do the same.
"You talk about a rag-tag outfit," Selig said of the Hilltoppers.
Harbaugh devoted his Friday nights to scouting high school prospects in and around Indy. He participated in spring practice, summer camps and January-February recruiting.
Harbaugh's biggest recruiting catch was Willie Taggart, a quarterback from Florida. Taggart set 11 school records and became life-long friends with Harbaugh, the best man at Taggart's wedding and godfather to his son.
Taggart, too, caught the coaching bug and was Western Kentucky's co-offensive coordinator in the 2002 championship season. He later joined Harbaugh's Stanford staff before Selig hired him as the Hilltoppers' head coach last year.
Talk about the circle of life.
"Jim and Willie are more like brothers than peers or cohorts," Selig said. "They're like family."
When Jack Harbaugh retired as coach following the national title, Selig tried to keep the job in the family. He reached out to Jim, then an Oakland Raiders assistant one year removed from his playing days.
"Jim just thought, and perhaps rightfully so, that it would be (difficult) to follow his father," Selig said. "It was probably very insightful on Jim's part."
Indeed, Harbaugh didn't feel qualified to lead anyone's program or team.
"Starting at the bottom, I just needed to learn how to be a coach at that point," he said. "I just felt like I needed to pay my dues before becoming a head coach."
After another season with the terminally dysfunctional Raiders — they went from the Super Bowl to 4-12 and fired coach Bill Callahan — Harbaugh took over the University of San Diego's program. His teams went 7-4, 11-1 and 11-1, earning him the Stanford job.
The Cardinal was reeling from five consecutive losing seasons, including a 1-11 faceplant in 2006. But under Harbaugh, Stanford has progressed from 4-8 to 5-7 to 8-5 to this season's 11-1, the program's best record since 10-0 in 1940.
"It's remarkable but not surprising," Selig said of Stanford's rise. "Jim is very youthful and competitive by nature. Everything he does is designed to set up competition. Between players and coaches, offense and defense, starters and reserves."
In that regard, Harbaugh, who turned 47 Thursday, is a product of his upbringing. His dad was a coach, his brother, John, coaches the Baltimore Ravens, and his sister is married to Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean.
Harbaugh played for the legendary Bo Schembechler at Michigan, where in 1986 he finished third in Heisman Trophy voting to Miami's Vinny Testaverde and Temple's Paul Palmer. As a Chicago Bear, he played for Hall of Famer Mike Ditka.
But his core philosophy was formed watching and working for his dad at Western Kentucky.
"I'd say the biggest thing that I learned was, when a parent or a family sends their son to college to play football, they're really giving you their most prized possession," Harbaugh said. "And it really makes no difference how much the family has in terms of material things or money. …
"The biggest responsibility that a college football coach has is just mentoring, taking care of that youngster."
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime, and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP