The house that Harbaugh built
December 14, 2012
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Whispers circulated through the student section as the Viking football team took on the Los Gatos Wildcats; “Jim Harbaugh (‘82) is here.”
Wearing a Giants baseball cap, the San Francisco 49ers head coach was sitting towards the top of the Paly stands next to his wife Sarah and high school friend, Dave Feldman (‘83).
Harbaugh has played nearly every role in the sport of football. He’s lined up under the center for four NFL squads and donned the famed black sweater for teams across the country. However, one of his lesser known roles is being a fan of his former high school team. Despite experiencing astronomical success as a football coach and player, Harbaugh can occasionally be found in the stands at Palo Alto High School, cheering on the Vikings.
“He’s very involved in what goes on around here at Palo Alto High School,” Harbaugh’s former Paly coach, Earl Hansen said. “It is special.”
What brings him back? The answer is simple: community. Although Harbaugh has traveled to many different areas and coached all levels of football, he continually returns to Palo Alto due to the relationships that he fostered here.
After moving to Palo Alto from Ann Arbor, Michigan where he attended Pioneer High School, Harbaugh enrolled at Paly for his junior year, where he was thrown right into the action of Viking football. However, the new quarterback did not immediately assume a leadership role.
“We had a very, very strong senior class just ahead of him,” Hansen said. “They really guided him more than he guided them, as far as how to act. [Harbaugh] learned what was important in Palo Alto: how to be, how to fit in, how to lead by example. Hard work more than talk.”
Once he was shown the ropes at Paly, Harbaugh began to shine as a result of his strong work ethic.
“ [For Jim] it was all about working harder than the next guy,” Paly football teammate and friend Steve Niethammer (‘83) said.
With his competitive nature, he encouraged his fellow teammates to perform to their best ability.
“Jim was a very good teammate, very supportive of the players who were not as good as him,” Feldman said.
Harbaugh’s skills and mental toughness were soon put to good use. The new quarterback’s first true challenge came against Los Altos, a major rival at the time.
“The first time [Los Altos] came here, no one gave us a chance,” Hansen said. “It’s one of those games I’ll never forget. We had a good running back, we had [Harbaugh], and we beat them 28-14. No one could believe it. We went on to the playoffs that year. That was his first real big test. Obviously he did well.”
Paly continued its dominance and won the league with Harbaugh at the helm. His versatility and athleticism made him a dual-threat quarterback and a nightmare for opposing defenses.
“[Harbaugh] could run, similar in style to Keller [Chryst],” Hansen said.
Throughout his time at Paly, Harbaugh continued to display his athletic prowess. He was awarded All-League honors in football, basketball and baseball. His senior year on the basketball team, the Vikings advanced to the final four of the Central Coast Section (CCS) tournament. Harbaugh describes these memories as some of the highlights of his time at Paly.
“The basketball experience was great with that great high school gym,” Harbaugh said.
While Harbaugh’s primary passion was still on the gridiron, he also shone on the court. Feldman, describes him as, “very strong, and a great finisher. He also had a nice jump shot from 17 feet and in.”
The three-sport athlete averaged 19.4 points per game during his senior year, highlighted by a 31 point game against the Santa Clara Bruins. His strong performance during his senior season led him to be awarded League MVP.
Harbaugh’s participation in multiple sports at Paly not only allowed him to stay in shape throughout the year, but also helped him improve his mental game.
“I think competing in other sports helped Jim understand how to relate to more people in different situations with different sports,” Feldman said. “I think it helped him in his future career as a coach.”
Harbaugh’s ability caught the attention of his peers, who voted him “Most Athletic” in the 1982 senior polls. His all-around dominance landed Harbaugh a football scholarship to the University of Michigan the following year.
After graduating from Michigan and playing for many NFL teams, including the Chicago Bears and the Indianapolis Colts, Harbaugh took his talents into the realm of coaching. After coaching the squad at the University of San Diego to an 11-1 record in 2006, he found himself back in the Bay Area, after being offered the head coaching job at Stanford University. Under the guidance of their new coach, the Cardinal became a Pac-12 powerhouse, improving their record from 1-11 to 11-1 in just four years.
As Harbaugh became a national figure as a coach, he also became a mentor for the boys at The Farm and for the citizens of Palo Alto. Harbaugh instilled a competitive and resilient fire in the hearts of his players that drove them to succeed.
“He’s a motivational guy,” Niethammer said. “He knows how to fire guys up.”
Harbaugh’s tough mentality fueled his own success and carries through to his players. He offers the following advice not only to his players, but also to students at Paly as well.
“Compete, compete, compete,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a competitive world
out there, you know? They’re keeping score right now, whether it’s on the athletic field or in the classroom. Students are probably really aware of that. It’s a higher bar that you have now than when we were in high school as far as getting into college. Just put your best foot forward and compete.”
Although Harbaugh’s ambitious mindset may have caught the national spotlight at Stanford, his drive to succeed was present even in high school.
“Harbaugh was memorable because he was very mentally tough at an age when most teenagers were not,” Feldman said. “He was very disciplined and focused.”
Today, Harbaugh stays in touch with his high school coaches, along with other friends and teammates at Paly, and made it a priority to attend his 30th high school reunion this year. Harbaugh fondly remembers his two years at Paly; so much so, that he has become an advocate for the community.
“Jim told his coaches that had kids in high school, that if your kids play sports, come to Paly,” Niethammer said. “Earl [Hansen] is there and it’s a great program. Jim has sponsored the area that way. He appreciates what he’s had.”
Harbaugh describes his time at Paly as, “thick with good memories,” adding that, “I met a lot of great people I still keep in touch with.”
In addition to sports, Harbaugh wrote sports articles for The Campanile, took rigorous classes and participated in other school activities. Harbaugh found that his experience at Paly gave him the necessary skills to thrive in college.
“[Paly’s] academics are sensational,” Harbaugh said. “Really helped prepare me for college which I always appreciate. Great teachers.”
Additionally, he participated in school events and Paly traditions.
“[Dances] were a really big thing to do,” Harbaugh said. “There would be a band and everyone would go.”
During his time at Paly Harbaugh recalls meeting a lot of memorable people.
“A lot of neat people, a lot of really good genuine down-to-earth people I met at Paly,” Harbaugh said. “Stella the lunch lady was the best. She loved me and I loved her. She was awesome.”
These memories remain with him today, and as a result Harbaugh takes time out of his demanding schedule as the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers to become just another face in the crowd at a Paly football game.
“It’s great to see [Keller Chryst], its great to see Earl on the sidelines,” Harbaugh said. “Not much has changed.”