By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — One a cold, snowy Saturday afternoon, trying to stay warm in the cozy confines of my home office, a simple quote from a member of the Football Championship Subdivision alumni club sparked some thinking.
The article I read on the Sports Illustrated website on Saturday was a couple of days old and the story about Brandon Jacobs ripping into Jim Harbaugh was just six paragraphs long, but it crystalized some thoughts I’ve had for awhile on winning and losing.
What was amazing was to see that two of the more successful people to come out of the FCS ranks, former Southern Illinois running back Jacobs and ex-University of San Diego coach Jim Harbaugh — the son of legendary Western Kentucky coach Jack Harbaugh — are aligned on opposite sides.
But here were Jacobs’ words:
“He is a b—-, and that’s why he’s never won anything …”
I’ll leave it to others to figure out what came after the b. With two kids around the house, this is a family-friendly column, even if those kids live in the Philly suburbs.
Bear with me as I try to work through this in slightly more than six paragraphs. As a journalist, it often times takes me a little more time than that to plow through a subject.
I am long past the days as a writer when one of my colleagues at the Los Angeles Times, then-copy-desk-traffic-cop Kevin Baxter, would bellow out at me “10 inches, dude,” when I called to find out how much space I had to write for some college, or prep game I was covering on a given night.
Not all subjects can be deciphered in 10 inches, no matter how many times our post-apocalyptic, USA Today world tries to tell us otherwise.
So back to Brandon Jacobs.
First off, it says something that the WFAN show “Boomer and Carton” is so desperate for an interview subject that they would be reaching out to Jacobs, a player who career has been in decline for several years and has likely made his last carry in a regular-season NFL game after seven professional seasons.
To put it bluntly, Brandon Jacobs, your 15 minutes wants its fame back.
But then, we could say that to a lot of people in the off-week heading towards the Super Bowl.
As the brief article pointed out, Jacobs had a rather short, two-game stint with Harbaugh as his coach in 2012 for the San Francisco 49ers. As was typical of the once-powerful Jacobs at that end of his career, he managed to suit up just a couple of times before he was injured.
Jacobs became somewhat of a malcontent on the 49er roster, eventually being suspended by the franchise for complaining about playing time and criticizing a team that came within a heartbeat of winning last season’s Super Bowl in a loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
So Harbaugh comes within a play, or two of beating his brother John (the coach of the Ravens for anyone who has been living under a rock in the past few years) for the Super Bowl crown and suddenly, the younger sibling is cast into loser’s purgatory.
As the youngest kid in a large, nuclear family and as someone who knows what it is like to have three older brothers — not even counting a competitive sister — I can tell you that you don’t want to lose to your siblings at anything, whether it be Yahtzee, or football.
But Jacobs followed up his earlier blast of Jim Harbaugh with one more enormous salvo:
“I have one regret in my career, and that’s going to the 49ers when I could have stayed in New York,” Jacobs said. “I just wanted to see what stuff was like with another team and it didn’t work out. It is what it is. I’ve got two rings. Harbaugh, though, he’s a b—-. So it doesn’t matter.”
Now Jacobs might be right about Jim Harbaugh, the person, or even Jim Harbaugh, the coach.
In my 36 years of covering college college football, I’ve had a chance to meet a lot of people. I’ve met Jim Harbaugh once.
It was the night of the 2005 Sports Network awards banquet, a dinner that I would be directing just two years later.
On an evening where Eastern Washington quarterback Erik Meyer edged out New Hampshire’s Ricky Santos for the Walter Payton Award, while Cal Poly’s Chris Gocong was capturing the Buck Buchanan Award and UNH’s Sean McDonnell was honored with the Eddie Robinson Award as the top offensive and defensive players and the FCS coach of the year, Jim Harbaugh was in Chattanooga, TN. as the warm-up act.
Harbaugh’s San Diego Toreros had captured something called The Sports Network Cup, symbolic of supremacy as the top mid-major (non-scholarship) school in the FCS ranks.
Harbaugh had to give a speech and a few of us engaged him in brief conversation afterwards. He struck me as being slightly aloof and maybe even a little cocky, not observations dissimilar to others who have met this highly-driven coach and former quarterback over the years.
A year later, many of us were back in Chattanooga to cover the NCAA Division I Football Championship game again and to attend the awards banquet. Harbaugh had an invitation to give another speech and pick up San Diego’s second of three consecutive TSN Cups, but he was a no show.
Having just been named as the new head coach at Stanford, Harbaugh skipped Chattanooga and was recruiting instead. He sent one of his USD assistants to go collect the hardware.
At the same time, I’ve had several delightful encounters through the years with Jack Harbaugh, Jim’s and John’s celebrated dad, including the incredible moment where Jack brought his grandkids into the press room for post-game interviews when Western Kentucky beat McNeese State for the 2002 FCS national championship.
Even though we both have strong ties to FCS, Jacobs and I have never crossed paths. Jacobs did have a checkered history in college, attending Coffeyville Junior College in Kansas before heading to Auburn and eventually transferring to Jerry Kill’s program at Southern Illinois.
With all of that historical background, I want to get to the heart of the matter.
If our sports society in America could be boiled down to a couple of quotes, it would probably be Vince Lombardi’s epochal “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” or the Al Davis Oakland Raider mantra “Just win, baby.”
It is obvious that Jacobs has bought into that philosophy hook, line and sinker, even though in Lombardi’s case, his famous quote is mostly taken out of context.
Lombardi’s real meaning could be translated by the words of former tight end Marv Fleming, by Jacobs’ measure one of the most successful football players ever with four Super Bowl rings, two each with the Green Bay Packers and Miami Dolphins.
Having played for two legendary coaches, Lombardi and Don Shula, Fleming said this as he let me hold his emerald encrusted ring from Super Bowl I as we talked one afternoon, many years ago.
“Don Shula taught you how to win football games,” said Fleming. “Vince Lombardi taught you about life.”
Obviously, Jacobs hasn’t been listening to those life lessons that some of his coaches, like the gentlemanly Jerry Kill, have tried to instill in him through the years.
While Jim Harbaugh has experienced his share of tough times and misfortune personally through the years — much of his own making — is he anything less than a winner because his team lost the NFC championship game last Sunday in the final 22 seconds to the Seattle Seahawks, or because of that narrow loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the last Super Bowl?
My biggest memory of Jim Harbaugh, the player, was watching him direct a last-ditch drive as the quarterback for the under-talented Indianapolis Colts as they tried to upset the heavily-favored Pittsburgh Steelers, following the 1995 regular season.
Harbaugh tossed up a pass in the end zone on the final play that was barely knocked away as the Colts fell 20-16 to the Steelers on the road, but you couldn’t help but see the fiery intensity of a leader as this determined quarterback drove his team to the brink of the Super Bowl.
The fact that Jacobs won a pair of Super Bowl rings during the years he spent with the New York Giants doesn’t make him better than Jim Harbaugh. It doesn’t mean that Jacobs is a “winner” and Harbaugh is a “loser”.
Does anyone want to tell coach Rob Ambrose and his tenacious group of Towson Tigers that they are losers, just because they dropped the recent FCS title game to three-time defending champion North Dakota State?
My money would be on Ambrose, if Jacobs tried to use that logic in the presence of the intense Towson coach.
As a kid, I watched the incredible feats on the basketball court of Philadelphia native Wilt Chamberlain, in my mind, still the greatest basketball player of all-time.
Maybe that is where this off-base idea, connecting winning with championship rings and locking everyone else out of the party began.
Chamberlain’s University of Kansas team lost in triple-overtime to an undefeated North Carolina in the final of 1957 NCAA Division I Basketball Championship, setting the stage that Chamberlain was some how to blame when his future teams didn’t win titles.
Because Bill Russell’s more-balanced Boston Celtic squads repeatedly beat Chamberlain’s teams with the Philadelphia 76ers, the San Francisco Warriors and the Los Angeles Lakers, Chamberlain was cast as a “loser” and Russell was somehow better.
It is still hard to comprehend the argument that Russell was superior than Chamberlain.
Even when Chamberlain led his 76ers to the 1967 NBA title and his Lakers to the 1972 crown, he was still viewed as an underachiever.
When we moved into the 1990s, Michael Jordan was somehow transformed into “the greatest” basketball player of all-time, because his Chicago Bulls won so many titles.
The same thing happened a decade earlier to Joe Montana, who became “the greatest” quarterback for many, because of the success of his supremely-talented San Francisco 49ers team (anyone remember that FCS alumni named Jerry Rice and John Taylor catching some of those Montana passes?).
But when you look at the off-the-field character of these two men, are they still winners because they have some extraordinary hardware sitting in some safe deposit box somewhere?
Winning two Super Bowl rings doesn’t make Brandon Jacobs a winner. And losing championship games the past two years doesn’t make Jim Harbaugh a loser.
I dare say that Jacobs and Harbaugh have more in common than this former player might think. They both came up through the under-respected ranks of the FCS and emerged to forge successful professional careers as a player and as a coach.
Jacobs became a star at Southern Illinois before blossoming with the Giants and Harbaugh became a coaching prodigy at the University of San Diego before moving on to success at Stanford and with the 49ers.
At least on the football field, I don’t see any losers there.