SANTA CLARA (CBS / AP) – Before he transformed Stanford from a laughingstock into a powerhouse and achieved his goal of being an NFL head coach tasked with rebuilding the floundering San Francisco 49ers, Jim Harbaugh got his full-time coaching career started across the bay in Oakland.
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Fresh off the end of a 15-year career as an NFL quarterback, Harbaugh joined the Oakland Raiders in 2002 near the lowest rung of the coaching ladder as an offensive assistant on a team that went on to win the AFC championship.
Despite the long days and little pay, Harbaugh took plenty out of his two years on Bill Callahan’s staff with the Raiders where he became a favorite of owner Al Davis. He learned how to coach.
“I’d never coached before full time, so how to be a coach, how to be detailed, so many things, sitting in on personnel meetings from the best, Mr. Davis, and Bill Callahan, tremendous football coach, and exposed to great players like Rich Gannon,” Harbaugh said. “So many things, a thousand things really that I learned over there.”
Harbaugh will get to show the Raiders some of what he learned on Saturday night when he leads his new team into the annual Battle of the Bay exhibition game.
Harbaugh went from offensive assistant with the Raiders in 2002 to quarterbacks coach the following season. Then to Davis’ disappointment, Harbaugh left to become the head coach at the University of San Diego.
“He wanted me to stay,” Harbaugh said. “At the time he thought I really wanted to be a pro coach and I told him that I was going to go back and coach in college and emulate the way he had done his career, where he had started off as a college coach.”
That’s when Davis pointed out a small difference in the two men’s paths.
“He told me that he had been at U-S-C, not U-S-D,” Harbaugh said.
Harbaugh went 29-6 in three years at San Diego before taking over a one-win Stanford team for the 2007 season. Harbaugh resurrected the Cardinal, leading them to a bowl game in his third season and then a 12-1 mark and No. 4 national ranking that was the highest season-ending ranking for the school in more than 70 years.
He parlayed that success into the job with the 49ers, where he hopes to lead this once-proud franchise back to the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
There was speculation that Harbaugh could be a candidate for the Raiders job, but he decided to go to the 49ers and Oakland promoted offensive coordinator Hue Jackson to the head spot.
Jackson is plenty familiar with Harbaugh and his family, having served as an assistant with his brother, John, on the Baltimore Ravens staff.
“He is a fine football coach,” Jackson said. “I really was impressed (with) what he did at Stanford and obviously he had some time here at the Raiders before. So I’m looking forward to, you know, matching wits against them this weekend.”
Along with being Harbaugh’s coaching debut at Candlestick Park it is also a surprising return to the stadium for Alex Smith. When he walked away in January, he hardly figured he would be returning with the home team less than eight months later.
Instead, the 2005 No. 1 overall pick signed a one-year free agent deal to return to the 49ers—despite the boos from his own crowd, despite the critics and skeptics.
Smith struggled in the exhibition opener at New Orleans, going 2 for 7 for 10 yards in a 24-3 loss to the Saints. Then he even heard the boos from fans during last Sunday’s FanFest at Candlestick.
“My mindset is a play at a time, put some good plays together,” Smith said. “Not get too carried away with anything else, fans or a mistake or whatever. … Throw some good balls, get some rhythm for this offense. We really struggled to get any rhythm last week. That’s really the next step. Besides that, I’m really not worried about anything.”
The Raiders’ first-team offense fared better than Smith and the Niners did in their exhibition debut, with Jason Campbell leading two lengthy drives that led to one field goal in a 24-18 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
Oakland committed 10 penalties, managed just one touchdown on five trips inside the Arizona 30 in the game and struggled in pass defense after the starters left. That leaves plenty of room for improvement against the 49ers.
“I expect us to be a very dominant defense and I want to see our defense play that way,” Jackson said. “I expect us to be an offense that can execute at a high level and I expect us to do that. I expect this team to start taking the next step. Again, everything headed toward that opening game, but we need to improve in all areas. I need to improve coaching. We need to improve playing.”
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