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Jim Harbaugh helped pull dad's college team back from brink

Published 11:39 pm, Monday, January 28, 2013
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By Eric Branch

NEW ORLEANS -- He met Willie Taggart in the cafeteria at the quarterback's high school in Bradenton, Fla.

He hooked up with Mel Mitchell after the future NFL safety had played a prep basketball game in Rockledge, Fla.

And he made his pitch to future NFL running back Rod Smart in the middle of the school day in Lakeland, Fla.

Their reaction to being wooed by Jim Harbaugh, then an NFL quarterback in the prime of his career: Wow.

"I couldn't believe I was being recruited by Jim. All my teammates were taking pictures," Mitchell said.

And their reaction when Harbaugh told the Florida kids he was recruiting for his dad, Jack, the head coach at Western Kentucky: What? Where?

"I'd never heard of Western Kentucky until then," Smart said. "I was like `Uh, OK.' ¦ Then I went up there for a visit and, man, it was so cold." Said Mitchell: "They were able to get guys that probably wouldn't have thought in a million years they would go to Western." But they did.

Nearly two decades ago, Harbaugh used his name recognition and endless energy to convince Florida high school stars they should sign with an on-the-brink-of-extinction Division I-AA program in Bowling Green, Ky. In the early `90s, WKU football had been saved by a narrow vote, but had lost 13 scholarships, half of its $1 million budget and two of its six full-time coaches. When assistant coach David Elson arrived in 1996, he was given practice shorts. And a used T-shirt. The Hilltoppers' record the previous season: 2-8.

At the program's nadir, even the uber-upbeat Jack Harbaugh, the originator of the 49ers' who's-got-it-better-than-us rallying cry, was forlorn and defeated.

"I figured my coaching career was pretty much over," Harbaugh said.

Instead, his youngest son's coaching career was beginning.

In a move the elder Harbaugh terms "divine intervention," Jim became a seven-year stint as an NCAA-certified unpaid volunteer assistant and began canvassing the talent-rich areas around his offseason home in Orlando for players. He didn't have much to sell, but he did have an unwavering belief in his dad, who he includes with his college coach, Michigan's Bo Schembechler, as his coaching heroes.

Along with recruiting, Jim regularly attended WKU's spring practice and assisted at camps. During his NFL bye weeks, he addressed the team and stood on the sideline. Elson, who terms the Harbaughs the most loyal family he's met, says Jim was driven by love and devotion to his down-on-his-luck dad. Jack Harbaugh had a 24-39 record at WKU from 1990-95.

"Jim knew his dad was a hell of a coach," Elson said. "He just wanted to do everything he could to make it come out and have other people recognize it. He knew it had been a tough go there." The climb back to respectability included an assist from Jack's oldest son, Ravens coach John Harbaugh, then an assistant coach at Cincinnati and Indiana. John had recruiting lists for his school and WKU, and the promising prospects that missed the Division I mark due to talent or test scores were funneled to Jim.

One of those players was Mitchell, who didn't have the grades to sign with a Division I school as a senior at Rockledge High in 1998. A future NFL safety who played four seasons with the Saints and Patriots, Mitchell's recruitment was a classic example of the Harbaughs at work.

Thanks to Jim's star power, Mitchell considered WKU when they first met after one of his basketball games. The next day, Jack flew to Florida and the son and father met with Mitchell's family. Mitchell said his connection with Jack convinced him to leave home for Bowling Green.

"I couldn't believe I was getting recruited by Jim," Mitchell said. "And, to this day, I'm so proud of the fact that I got to play for Jack. Anybody that played for Jack would say that." Said Smart: "It helped that his son was Jim Harbaugh. But after I saw how Jack related to me compared to other coaches, I knew I wanted to play for him." With Jim opening the door to talent, his father's record steadily rose.

His first recruit -- Taggart -- was an All-American and four-year starter at quarterback who led the Hilltoppers to a 26-18 record from 1995-98. Later, Smart and Mitchell arrived and the program began a stretch that included four Division I-AA playoff berths in five seasons.

In 2002, Western Kentucky won the Division I-AA national title to cap Harbaugh's final season as a head coach. Instead of enduring a crushing end to his coaching career, he left as a champion. Jack has often said his son, who recruited 17 players on the national championship team, saved Western Kentucky's program.

"It was a collection of a lot of people," Elson said. "But I think if you really take a step back and say `OK, what if Jim hadn't done what he did?' I would say it would have been a heck of a lot more difficult to pull that off. I think that's probably why Jack says it that way. Jim was kind of at the peak of his career. He was `Captain Comeback' for the Colts. He had a name and recognition factor to really help in a lot of different ways." Years later, of course, Harbaugh is one win removed from his own championship as a coach.

At a Super Bowl news conference at the 49ers' hotel Monday afternoon, he recalled watching the 2002 Division I-AA national championship in Oakland, where he began his NFL coaching career as low-level assistant with the Raiders.

That title-game victory wasn't particularly suspenseful: Western Kentucky walloped McNeese State, 34-14. Through the eyes of a devoted son who knew his dad was one hell of a coach, however, it was an all-time classic.

"It was the best football game that I can ever remember watching on TV," Harbaugh said. "I was just really proud of my dad, and his coaches and his players."

Eric Branch is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: ebranch@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @Eric_Branch

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