A trade with Baltimore in March 1999 sent Jim Harbaugh, in the twilight of his NFL playing career, to San Diego. The Chargers needed help after the dreadful rookie season of Ryan Leaf, and the Ravens thought Scott Mitchell, acquired from Detroit, offered a solution at quarterback. He did not.
For two seasons, Harbaugh served as a part-time starter for the Chargers before he retired to enter coaching full time. It was an utterly forgettable period in San Diego that bottomed out in 2000 with a 1-15 finish, but those years forged a bond that thrives today in the Big Ten between Harbaugh and the league’s two other new head coaches.
“Very close to family,” Harbaugh said.
As preseason practice opens this week across the league, 51-year-old Harbaugh at Michigan, 62-year-old Mike Riley at Nebraska and 49-year-old Paul Chryst at Wisconsin remain close.
Their time with the Chargers -- Riley was the head coach from 1999 to 2001, and Chryst worked as his tight ends coach -- fortified this connection with roots in an older generation.
“I know that it’s all a process,” Riley said last week in his first appearance at Big Ten media days. “Paul and I were the coaches, and Jim was playing. We were the consummate football junkies. Paul and I have always studied film together, so that, for sure, shaped whatever was in our future.
“Jim was the consummate worker -- and intense. There was a formation made there.”
The Chargers finished 8-8 in 1999 as Harbaugh shared time with Erik Kramer.
A year later, let Riley explain it.
“Brutal,” he said, extending the word for emphasis.
There will be no reunion of the 2000 Chargers, Riley said with a smile that only 15 years of distance allows. He doesn’t talk with Harbaugh or Chryst about that season. Not even the Week 13 win over Chiefs.
Harbaugh started five games. Leaf, who missed all of the 1999 season with a shoulder injury suffered in the preseason, started nine games. And Moses Moreno got the nod in two. All three quarterbacks threw an interception on the same November Sunday against the Dolphins, the first such occurrence in the NFL in seven years.
San Diego was outscored by nearly 11 points per game.
As Riley said, it was brutal.
“But the thing I liked about that team was they never really quit,” he said. “Lots of close games, and we were a mess at some key positions. But it was interesting to see.”
Linebacker Junior Seau, safety Rodney Harrison and veterans like Harbaugh helped keep the team intact.
All three Big Ten coaches said they used elements of the shared time in San Diego to shape their careers.
“Player to coach, coach to player, I took a lot of great life lessons from Coach Riley,” Harbaugh said, “learned a lot of football and am forever indebted. I just feel an attitude of gratitude that I was able to know Mike Riley and to play for Mike Riley.”
Harbaugh described Riley as “a great coach” and an “even better person.”
For Chryst, the stop in San Diego marked a small sample of his time with Riley. Riley, in fact, gave Chryst his first full-time job in coaching with the San Antonio Riders of the World League of American Football in 1991. Chryst coached two years for Riley at Oregon State before they moved to San Diego.
“Obviously, what he’s meant to me personally and professionally, it’s been huge,” Chryst said of Riley last spring. “One of the things that I love and respect about him is that it’s never about him.”
In that difficult 2000 season, Riley stood behind his players, Chryst said. And Harbaugh exemplified a leader.
“A true veteran and a great teammate,” Chryst said. “He would help all guys. He epitomized what a football player was.”
Through his older brother, Chryst previously knew Harbaugh. Geep Chryst, who coordinated Riley’s offense in San Diego, had worked with Harbaugh’s Chicago Bears as a quality control coach in the early 1990s. Additionally, Geep and Paul’s father, George, the longtime coach at Wisconsin-Platteville, knew Harbaugh’s dad, Jack, who coached as an assistant at several programs.
Jim Harbaugh hired Geep Chryst to coach quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, where he remains as coordinator.
All three of the Big Ten coaches played quarterback -- Harbaugh at Michigan before 14 seasons in the NFL, Chryst at Wisconsin and Riley at Corvallis (Oregon) High School before his time as a backup at Alabama under Bear Bryant.
Riley’s father, Bud, also coached football. In 2008, Mike Riley hired Jim Harbaugh’s son, Jay, as an undergraduate assistant at Oregon State. Jay Harbaugh spent four years with the Beavers before working for his uncle, John Harbaugh, the past two seasons in Baltimore.
The younger Harbaugh landed a spot this year on his dad’s staff as tight ends coach and assistant special teams coach.
“Jay can do whatever he wants to do,” Riley said, “and he’ll be good at it.”
The Nebraska coach said he saw the same traits in Jim Harbaugh, whose first head-coaching job came with the University of San Diego in 2004.
The similarities in Harbaugh, Chryst and Riley help explain the career paths that have reunited them in the Big Ten. When they meet as conference foes, respect and admiration will run high.
“It’s a great honor,” Harbaugh said, “to be associated with these men.”