Friday, December 31, 2010
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Nothing 'pretty' about Harbaugh's boys

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Stanford's players know the perception still lingers. They don't love it, but they understand it.

After all, they once had it themselves.

Pick a stereotype, they've heard it. All brains, no brawn. West Coast softies. Pac-10 pretty boys.

But when you're 1-11, as the Cardinal was in 2006, it's hard to fire back.

"I'm from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, so I grew up with the same ideas about Stanford football" linebacker Thomas Keiser said. "It definitely is different out there. You're not surrounded with the football culture that you have on the East Coast.

"I remember growing up reading about Pitt in the newspaper every day of the week, no matter what time of the year it was, and that's not how it is at Stanford."

But interest in their program is higher than it's been in a long time. Four years after that dreadful season, Stanford is looking less like the school that produced Charles Schwab and more like the one that churned out John Elway.

And universally, the Cardinal players explain the resurgence by pointing to one man: fourth-year coach Jim Harbaugh.

"He grinded us from day one," Keiser said. "He's kind of put us in the vise and made us a lot tougher."

Harbaugh, 47, came with NFL credibility (15 years as a pro quarterback), coaching bloodlines (his father steered Western Kentucky and brother coaches the Baltimore Ravens) and experience as a successful head man in college (29-6 in three seasons at San Diego).

More importantly, though, he came with a can-do, blue-collar attitude that the players say had been missing on the Stanford football team.

Harbaugh had the team practicing in full pads as soon as the NCAA would allow. Even during the spring, players routinely left the field bruised and battered -- but satisfied that they were making strides.

Slowly, the mentality began to change. Instead of trying to outscheme opponents and finesse its way to victory, the team evolved into a hard-hitting group of bullies.

For Harbaugh, convincing his new charges to follow his plan was easy.

"It was a situation where you had players that were tired of getting beat," Harbaugh said. "They were tired of going out on the field and getting embarrassed. They had a great hunger, a great fire. [They] took that fire and infused with a lot of energy that was coming from the coaching staff ... and got it all moving in one direction."

The arrow's been pointing up ever since. The Cardinal went 4-8 in Harbaugh's first season, 5-7 in 2008, 8-5 last year. And this season, the team already has set a school record for victories (11) and is favored to get a 12th against Virginia Tech in Monday's Orange Bowl.

So much for Pac-10 pretty boys.

"These days it's the complete reverse," said fifth-year senior defensive end Brian Bulcke, who suffered through the one-win season as a freshman. "Physical, nasty, gritty. And that's all Coach Harbaugh."

Now the players find it a sign of disrespect -- or just plain ignorance -- when people assume they don't hit hard.

"In terms of nastiness, it doesn't get any better than our offensive line," Bulcke said. "I feel that goes against any of those stigmas that are held against us. That's one of our strengths, really -- we'll put our nose down and run the ball."

They also put their challenging studies on hold, at least during the hours they're under Harbaugh's intense watch.

"I wouldn't say that we're a bunch of brainiacs out there on the field," inside linebacker Shayne Skov said. "We do have our smart guys, but at the end of the day we're football players, man. We just put on our pads and we're not going to outsmart you. We're just going to play hard and knock your teeth in. That's the way coach has preached since Day 1."

Harbaugh's name has been connected with a lot of NFL and high-profile college programs in recent weeks. He'll certainly be tempted come Tuesday. Even if he doesn't end up steering the Cardinal for decades, though, it's clear that he's made his mark.

Thanks to him, stereotypes of Stanford only linger until that first lick.

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