Jim Harbaugh clears a path for the Trojans

Back in early October, before anyone knew how far Jim Harbaugh could take Stanford, you could hear the respect oozing out of the USC coaches as they prepared to face his team. The Cardinal had once been routinely picked on at recess and now it was rubbing other kids’ noses in the dirt.

Harbaugh, in fact, might have given USC’s first-year coaches a template to build a program around. You start with the fundamentals – toughness and discipline – and built up. Imagine that: A Stanford coach showing USC the way… in football, not water polo or women’s volleyball.

“What’s this, Coach Harbaugh’s fourth year with them? We’re not in the fourth year in our program,” defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron had said. “These guys are just learning our system and our ways, but you have to give them credit. They are a tough football team and that’s what they build on.”

Orgeron didn’t even mind the over-the-top motto Harbaugh apparently came up with – the bit about winning with “character and a little bit of cruelty.”

“It’s all good. That’s who they are. That’s good,” Orgeron said. “Each team has a different personality. I commend these guys. They have a great personality and they’ve done a good job.”

And now the foundation has shifted. Friday’s news -- first reported by ESPN.com -- that Harbaugh was moving up the Peninsula, from Stanford to the 49ers, might have been the best news USC – or UCLA – has gotten this off-season. Thus far, the headlines have been dominated by juniors departing early for the NFL and shuffling in the coaching ranks.

Now, the path to the pinnacle of the conference looks a little clearer, especially after Andrew Luck finally goes pro in about 15 months. Now, instead of two implacable opponents, USC might only have to contend with Oregon in the coming years. None of the other Pac-10 teams, with the possible exception of Washington, looks to be on the rise.

Maybe Harbaugh, like Pete Carroll before him, realized he had maxed out the potential of the program, ridden the horse as far as it would carry him. Maybe that’s part of the reason he moved on to a bigger challenge.

More than that, few people will realize how difficult what he did was. You probably wouldn’t need more than one hand to count the number of USC players who could have academically qualified to play at Stanford.

And now the Cardinal loses all the momentum it had built up under four years of Harbaugh, whose prickly personality seemed to rub off on his players. They didn't just play smart. They played angry. Now, he can be a thorn in Carroll’s side again. Maybe he’ll open his inaugural press conference by taking sarcastic shots at the Seattle Seahawks, as he once did at USC at an LAX airport hotel during Pac-10 media day in 2007.

In a way, USC put Harbaugh on the map. Before his Cardinal shocked the Trojans as six-touchdown underdogs later that year, most people considered him fortunate to have gotten the Stanford job. Remember, he was coming from coaching the San Diego Toreros, not exactly your typical stepping stone. Just as Carroll’s departure shifted the power structure in the conference, so does Harbaugh’s.

If Lane Kiffin and his coaches are lucky, now it’s their turn to build something. Who knows, maybe Oregon’s Chip Kelly will get an offer he can’t refuse before too long. That seems to be the way of things in this conference nowadays.