Jim Harbaugh is the new head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers, and to understand what this means and why it happened, you have to understand where the organization has been.
Owner Dean Spanos announced the relocation from San Diego to L.A. in an open letter to fans on Jan. 11, 2017. In the seven years and 14 days since, the Chargers have faced an uphill battle to find their place in one of the most competitive sports marketplaces in the world. A battle of their own creation, but a battle nonetheless.
The organization knew it was going to take time — to till this new land, to plant the seeds, to groom and cultivate those seedlings until they one day blossomed into a ripened fan base. So the Chargers took their lumps, some deserved and some not. Through a 27,000-seat soccer stadium overrun by opposing fans every Sunday. Through a paradigm shift at franchise quarterback from Philip Rivers to Justin Herbert. Through a temporary practice facility and two head coaches and a uniform redesign.
What has been missing is what is most important: winning in January and February. They have the exciting star quarterback. They have the attractive brand, from the dashing powder blue jerseys to the cutting-edge content. In sports, though, that means nothing without trophies and banners and parades. Especially in this town. The business, in the end, is winning.
Each time the Chargers had a chance over the past seven years and 14 days, they floundered.
The blowout loss to the New England Patriots in the divisional round in 2018.
The Week 18 overtime loss in Las Vegas in 2021 that wasted one of the great comebacks in recent league history.
For the Chargers, the hump separating them from Los Angeles relevance has proven to be a mountain. They brought it on themselves, and they have not delivered that most vital ingredient, sustainable winning.
And so as the team moved on from head coach Brandon Staley and general manager Tom Telesco in December after a calamitous loss to the Raiders, the search for winning and winning alone became the driving motivation.
Players and coaches often get asked about a sense of urgency when a season is spiraling.
Over the last month, it has been the Spanos family grappling with the urgency of this moment.
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The shelf life for staking a claim in L.A. is finite, and the edge is in view.
The Chargers had no choice but to push their boundaries, their approaches, their very identity to find that missing ingredient. To find the person who could deliver them the winning they so desperately need. To do that, they had to go shopping at the pinnacle of the sport. No up-and-comers or rising stars. No, they needed proof of concept. A winner through and through, with the skins on the wall to show for it.
Enter Jim Harbaugh.
He agreed to terms with the Chargers on Wednesday, the team announced. It is a five-year deal, according to The Athletic’s Jeff Howe.
“Jim Harbaugh is football personified,” Dean Spanos said in a statement.
the guy we wanted, the guy we got. pic.twitter.com/BIRjDWbUBy
— Los Angeles Chargers (@chargers) January 25, 2024
The results speak for themselves.
In 2007, Harbaugh took over a Stanford program that had finished 1-11 the previous season. In 2009, the Cardinal finished 8-5. The next season, the team went 12-1, including a win in the Orange Bowl.
In 2011, Harbaugh made the move to the NFL and took over a San Francisco 49ers team that went 6-10 the previous season. That first year, they went 13-3 and made it to the NFC Championship Game. The next season, in 2012, they made the Super Bowl. They won 12 games and made it to a third consecutive conference championship in 2013. They went 8-8 in 2014 before Harbaugh left for Michigan. Harbaugh finished with a 44-19-1 record. He’s never had a losing record as an NFL head coach.
When Harbaugh arrived in Ann Arbor in 2015 to lead his alma mater, the Wolverines had won more than eight games just once in the previous seven seasons, through two head coaches. They won 10 games in 2015. They won 10 games again in 2016. They went 40-3 over the last three seasons, a run that ended with a national championship in January. It was the university’s first national title since 1997.
Meek: Jim Harbaugh at Michigan could have ended badly. Instead, he delivered a parade.
“You need a team,” president of football operations John Spanos said in a statement. “And nobody has built a team more successfully, and repeatedly, in recent history than Jim Harbaugh.”
What the Harbaugh hire represents is the organization’s commitment, financially and ideologically, to winning.
“This organization is putting in the work — investing capital, building infrastructure and doing everything within its power to win,” Harbaugh said in a statement.
That does not feel like lip service. Not this time.
The Chargers’ new practice facility in El Segundo, Calif., is set to open in the spring. They signed Herbert to a top-of-the-market extension. They went into a deep and hyper-qualified pool of head coach candidates and came away with arguably the best of the bunch.
Will it all work?
That remains to be seen.
But the commitment means something.
Because of where the Chargers have been and where they are hoping to go.
(Photo: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)