Without warning, the lights went down inside YouTube Theater. The main feature was about to begin, the promise of a happier future about to be delivered.
In a brief video that touched on the stars and high points of their history, from the days of Air Coryell and Dan Fouts and LaDainian Tomlinson to the present-day aspirational brilliance of quarterback Justin Herbert, the Chargers introduced Jim Harbaugh as the coach who will lead them to unprecedented heights.
At the end, accompanying an image of Harbaugh during his late-career quarterbacking days with the then-San Diego Chargers, the screen displayed the words, “Welcome Home.”
He’s not really coming home, since home for the Chargers is now SoFi Stadium, a short jog from the scene of his news conference Thursday. But why quibble on small points?
“Watching the video, the little hairs on my arms stood up,” Harbaugh said, adding the video reminded him that after his last game as a Charger he had exchanged jerseys with linebacker Junior Seau, a souvenir that occupies a place of honor in his office.
Besides touching Harbaugh’s heart, the video made an emphatic and intriguing point.
The Spanos family, which owns and operates the Chargers, has invested their trust, their money and their credibility in Harbaugh, giving him a deal that has been reported to be for five years at $16 million per year. It’s a make-or-break move for owners who seemed content to run the team as a plaything and whose previous three coaches (Mike McCoy, Anthony Lynn, and Brandon Staley) had no NFL experience on their respective resumés.
They got serious. They got Harbaugh, who had the guts to speak Thursday about coming in humble and hungry but with the firm goal of winning “multiple, multiple championships.” That’s music to the ears of fans long frustrated by the Spanos family’s short-sighted ambitions, fans who often are drowned out in their stadium by fans supporting whoever the Chargers are playing that week.
“We talked internally about really being willing to reimagine how we do things,” said John Spanos, head of football operations and son of team owner Dean Spanos. “That doesn’t mean just doing things differently for the sake of change, but really being willing to explore all options, all possibilities, and gaining an understanding of what it’s going to take to get to the next level.”
Fresh off winning a national championship with the University of Michigan, Harbaugh’s comments and responses to questions Thursday sometimes sounded like the kind of rah-rah clichés that work better at the college level than with older, experienced pros. He repeatedly spoke of his goal being to have a productive day and dominate the day, a phrase he often used while coaching the Wolverines.
But he let some of his personality peek through: He made frequent mention of faith, family, and football as his priorities. He quoted his father, Jack, and Jack’s fondness for saying, “Who’s got it better than us?” Several times, he quoted his daughter Katie’s saying of “Work together, win together,” as his mantra.
Along the way, he mentioned Morgan Freeman’s character in “The Shawshank Redemption,” revealed he was a fan of the fictional coach Ted Lasso, and said he wanted to get an RV and park at a Southern California beach in tribute to the 1970s TV show “The Rockford Files,” which started James Garner as a quirky detective.
After his news conference, he was scheduled to visit the Chargers’ new training facility in El Segundo. He said he was ready to go to a hardware store and buy a Shop-Vac to clean up the weight room and make sure the right equipment was ordered.
Harbaugh, 60, sometimes was charmingly folksy, talking about his childhood in Ohio and the frequent moves his family made to accommodate his father’s football coaching career moves. His brother, John, coach of the Baltimore Ravens and roommate for 16 years of their shared childhood, is “as tough as a $2 steak,” Jim said, but their competitiveness made him better as a person and later, as a coach.
He made no secret of his big ambitions, but he knows he’s got a big rebuilding job to do. The Chargers were 5-12 under Staley and interim coach Giff Smith last season. The Spanos family held on to Staley for too long and fired him only because a 63-21 loss to Las Vegas was too great a beatdown to be ignored. Turning this around will take some time. Success in his first year will have to be graded on a curve.
“Humble and hungry. That’s where we are right now,” he said. “We’re going to respect all our opponents and we’re going to strive to earn their respect. And we’re going to earn a winning [reputation]. Tough team, resilient team, relentless team, physical team, is what we strive to be.”
He then paused, to good effect. “Don’t let the powder blues fool you,” he said of their pastel uniforms, drawing laughs from the audience.
Winning enough to win over fans — and persuading Chargers ticket holders not to sell their seats to fans of visiting teams — will be tough tasks. He sees one way to accomplish that–the old-fashioned basics of blocking, tackling, playing a physical, all-out game.
“My thought is pretty much what I said earlier. By your talent and by your effort you will be known,” he said. “We have our team and people will look at it. They’re going to see that kind of football team.”
His priority now, he said, is to assemble a coaching staff and continue to get to know his players. At some point, he will have to put his words into action. Who’s got it better than them? We’ll find out next season.