It's tough to say who is a bigger legend at the University of San Diego, Jim Harbaugh or Josh Johnson. Both of their mythologies still run deep. After all, it's rare a nonscholarship I-AA football team produces an NFL coach of the year and an NFL quarterback. Even rarer, certainly, that they end up on the same team in the pros, which is what happened last week when Johnson signed with Harbaugh's 49ers.
Harbaugh was the kind of coach who jogged up dirt hills with his team during morning conditioning sessions. He took snaps and threw to receivers during practices. He filmed warm-ups and called guys out if their form was off, or if they did 19 push-ups instead of 20. If a prospective recruit shook his hand and said "Coach Harbaugh, it's an honor to meet you," he'd look the kid in the eye and reply, "It's an honor to meet you."
"Our love for the game ... was a mutual thing that brought two different people from two different places together," Johnson said during a media conference call last week. "From the moment I met him, I could tell his love for football and he just wanted to talk football -- that's the kind of guy I was. I always wanted to talk football and learn something new about football. Once I got around him, I was able to do that."
They came to USD together, in 2004. Harbaugh, the first-year head coach, drove Johnson eight hours in a U-Haul from Oakland to San Diego. Johnson, a low-profile recruit from Oakland Tech, was 5'9", 145 lbs. his senior season and had missed his junior season with a broken ankle. The only other school to offer him chance to play college ball was St. Mary's, whose football program dissolved that same year.
Johnson's overwhelming talent against I-AA opponents jibed well with Harbaugh's particularly fervent competitive fire. In Johnson's two years as a starting quarterback under Harbaugh, the team scored more than 40 points 15 times and won by 30 or more points 11 times. Over that span, Johnson threw for 70 touchdowns, ran for 15 more, and completed nearly 70 percent of his passes. The team went 22-2 with two conference titles.
"He showed me how to trust in all my abilities," Johnson said. "Coming out of high school, my body was still developing so I kind of doubted myself. He showed me how to play the quarterback position with confidence and to be precise with everything."
Harbaugh cultivated an imposing aura around his team. He announced USD was the best I-AA squad in the country. He said Johnson was the most talented quarterback in the country, even better than Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith. He challenged USD's I-A neighbor, San Diego State, to a game.
"We were never going to get top-tier talent," says Chris Hanneke, editor of USD's campus paper, The Vista. "But Harbaugh saw that as a challenge and his ability to create a powerhouse at a school that quite frankly couldn't care less about football speaks volumes about his ability to lead and get people to buy into his system. And that's what he got out of Johnson."
When Harbaugh took the job at Stanford, the USD campus collectively wondered whether Johnson, entering his senior year, would follow. He'd already proven to be a I-A caliber player with NFL potential, and an impressive year in the Pac-10 would help his chances of getting drafted.
He stayed in San Diego. That season, he threw an incredible 43 touchdowns to just one interception. Many players from that year's team, though, might best remember a moment from when Johnson wasn't on the field.
During a game against Asuza Pacific, one of Johnson's teammates intercepted the ball at the seven-yard line and ran 93 yards for a touchdown. Johnson, behind the sideline benches, sprinted alongside all the way down the field, his hand in the air in celebration.