Jim Harbaugh’s New-Look Chargers

Before we discuss Jim Harbaugh and the Chargers, consider this. The camera focuses on a ringing telephone. The first voice heard comes from an answering machine that informs us, “This is Jim Rockford. At the tone, leave your name and message. I’ll get back to you.”

Each episode of The Rockford Files, all 122 of them, begins with a different message for Jim, ranging from an overdue library book to an unpaid parking ticket. These messages shed light on the world of this fictional and easily likable character who was falsely accused and served time at San Quinton before he was pardoned. Rockford specialized in cold cases for $200 a day plus his expenses and rarely was paid. Something always happened to poor Jimmy when payday was near.  He always solved every case, a perfect 122-0 record, expect his bank account wasn’t growing. 


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Rockford lived in a broken-down house trailer (there is a plaque honoring the show there now) overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Malibu. It’s a fancy setup for a private detective who rarely gets paid.  However, it’s the perfect setup for Jim Harbaugh, the head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers, who is living his best Rockford life inside an RV overlooking the Pacific.

Jim Harbaugh, like me, loved The Rockford Files. We both loved James Garner (a diehard Raider fan), the star of the show, the writing, and the way Rockford was able to solve problems using creative methods. Being completely honest, I learned more from repeatedly watching the 122 shows late night in my dorm room I did from my teachers at Hofstra University. 

What Harbaugh loved about the show, he told Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times. “Rockford wasn’t trying to impress anybody,” Harbaugh said. “I think we all go wrong when we try to make that leap to, `Today I’ve got to impress somebody.’ Because then you’re not yourself anymore. You don’t have a lot of practice at that. If you want to get better at something, just work a little harder at it. And whatever you do, don’t get a big head. That’s a trap. A deep, dark, lonely trap.”

The lessons from The Rockford Files, combined with his father, Jack, his college coach Bo Schembechler, Bill Walsh, and Al Davis, gave Harbaugh his code of conduct entering the head coaching world, which has been his whole world. Harbaugh spent little time being an assistant coach on any level. The two years at the Raiders working with quarterbacks was the only time during his coaching career he wasn’t in charge.  Being the leader, being the man is all he knows and what he trained himself to become. 

From each association, Harbaugh learned something different—schemes, game management, how to hold everyone accountable, how to be demanding, and how to create a sense of belonging for his team. Most of all, he learned how to blend his highly competitive personality with that of the head coaching chair in his team.

Harbaugh isn’t a playcaller. He isn’t going to stare down at his call sheet. He is an old-time head coach, controlling the action on the field in all three phases, demanding more from each player and the coaches.  Harbaugh isn’t going to reinvent the coaching wheel; he is going to lead men into a competitive environment, and success depends on the strength of the group under pressure.

From being around the University of Michigan football team last year, it was obvious that Harbaugh had 90 players who shared his drive, his never-quit spirit and his will to win. Each player was a mini-Jim Harbaugh, filled with relentless determination. They were all happy living in the culture Harbaugh created. 

As bettors and handicappers of a team, it’s hard to quantify the value of team unity with a sense of belonging. Owen Eastwood, in his wonderful book Belonging, writes, “Belonging is a wildly undervalued condition required for human performance.” When a team feels it’s connected to one another for a greater purpose than themselves, they become dangerous. They “will” themselves to wins—even with less talent. They dig deep, finding ways to make key plays at critical times. They relish close games. When a team is connected, their toughness and competitive spirit shine in every game.

And this is what Harbaugh will do for the Chargers. He will create this competitive team environment, uniting one another to play far above their perceived talent level. He will make the team tough-minded, something Brandon Staley was unable to accomplish during his tenure with the Chargers. 

Every close game seemed to go against the Staley-led Chargers. They were unable to make the plays to win or close out games late. For all the perceived talent, the Chargers were labeled as underachievers.  They did some dumb things in games under the protection of analytics, which caused them to lose, thus creating internal doubt. This will change under Harbaugh’s direction. 

The Chargers will be tough. They will play with physicality because they will practice being physical.  Harbaugh understands football is a game of blocking and tackling. His practices will be tough. He will make Justin Herbert a better player, a more complete player and give him the tools he needs to deliver in the clutch. 

Most books have the Chargers win total set at 8.5, with juice to the Under as they are expecting a mediocre season. I don’t. What the Chargers need to improve is exactly what Harbaugh delivers. This is the perfect marriage. As he continues to bring players into the organization that fits his personality, and as the team develops his personality, they won’t be mediocre. 

There isn’t an ounce of phony in Harbaugh, which every player will instantly notice. And that’s important.  All players love consistency. They love their leader to be the same person each day—not an emotional roller coaster whose behavior is attached to what social media spins. Players can deal with a hard ass as long as the ass is hard each day. What drives players nuts is wondering who the leader will be today. Crazy? Sane? Or both? That’s not Jim. 

Whatever others might think of his behavior, Harbaugh doesn’t care. He is as authentic as his television idol, Rockford. He operates with his own style, which is why the trailer life isn’t a ploy or a self-serving attention grab. Harbaugh’s trailer life pays homage to Rockford, to Garner, and the writers who helped shape his philosophy. It’s his way of showing his respect. 

For Harbaugh, Rockford was “The hero who it doesn’t always go perfect for. It’s more like real life. He doesn’t get paid in the end, or he takes a bullet in the hip. But he’s really loyal, a force for good. More like a real person. One of Rockford’s best lines is when he’s asked if there’s anything he won’t do for money. ‘I won’t kill for it, and I won’t marry for it. Other than that, I’m open to just about anything.’ That’s very human to me.”  And that Rockford line sums up Harbaugh perfectly.