Belichick and Harbaugh Deserve Our Thanks

SAN FRANCISCO - So here was Jim Harbaugh, who tried to tell us he didn't want to take chances, going for a two-point conversion with his Stanford team far ahead, being linked to Bill Belichick, who as we know took one very large chance.

Harbaugh, the guy who just got an extension to stay at Stanford, and why not, since he proved kids who study are kids who can play, was about to step to the microphone in a bayside sports bar/brewery/dining establishment called Gordon Biersch.

It was hype time for the Big Game, Stanford vs. Cal, 112 years of insults and bent trombones. But virtually the moment Harbaugh began to talk, on one of the numerous TV sets in the place ESPN was quizzing its audience on what was the worst coaching decision of the weekend, Belichick's on fourth down or Harbaugh's on the conversion in the fourth quarter against USC.

Asked if he felt honored to be included in the tale America is equating with the collapse of Wall Street, the Belichick gamble, Harbaugh paused only for a moment, then responded, "I'm glad we won the game.''

That Stanford did, crushing the Trojans, 55-21, even though the two-pointer, the Cardinal leading at the time, 48-21, and only 6 minutes 49 seconds remaining, was unsuccessful.

Down in southern Cal, many fans were quite displeased, using such terms as "poor sportsmanship'' and "disgraceful.'' A Stanford alum of some history, having suffered through years of Trojan domination, e-mailed, in response, "USC accuses Stanford of pouring it on? The gods laughed.''

Not a lot of people were laughing about Belichick, his Patriots in front, 34-28, with a couple of minutes left trying to pick up two yards on fourth down from his own 28 instead of punting. The Colts, zap, zap, got the touchdown that with the extra point won the game, 35-34.

The outrage was universal. A different outrage than that directed at Harbaugh, certainly, more of a "What a dumkopf that Belichick is. Every 6-year-old has been taught in that situation you kick it away.'' It was as if Bill had stomped on the flag, not merely blown a call.

Belichick, like Harbaugh, had his reasons, one declared - the Pats with Tom Brady should have no worry making two stinking yards anywhere, anytime - and one unspoken. The New England defense ain't what it used to be, so better to take the chance to retain possession then give it to Peyton Manning, wherever.

For not bowing to public opinion, Belichick, and Harbaugh, deserve both our admiration and our thanks. Isn't the idea to be a leader, not a follower? It takes courage to try what nobody else would. Besides, they created instant controversy, the stuff that keeps us from watching Oprah.

I mean, Tedy Bruschi, the former Patriot, and current ESPN employee - do not forget the latter connection - was on his network seemingly seconds after the Pats couldn't get their first down, berating the man who used to coach him. Who could have asked for better theater?

Harbaugh had a luke-warm justification about ordering the two-point attempt with a 27-point lead. "I felt with 6:49 left, we had the opportunity to punch it in and make it a lead of four scores plus two points. I felt it was the right thing to do. They were going to have two more possession opportunities.

"I felt like we were going to get it. That's why we did it. Had I known they weren't going to score any more points and we were going to score again, I probably wouldn't have done it. But I didn't have the luxury of knowing it at the time.''

What that translates to is, "We've been waiting forever to get even with those Trojans, and we're not going to miss this chance. If they don't like it, then stop us.''

Which they couldn't.

Nor could anyone stop Belichick from his self-assured gesture. The critics said it was arrogance, as if that's an indictable offense in the coaching profession. Those guys think they can do everything, except turn water into wine, and Belichick virtually has done everything, the Pats winning three Super Bowls.

Brady said all the Patriots agreed with the Belichick judgment, and who cares if the rest of the free world didn't agree. If it works, he's a genius. If it doesn't work, well, he's still a genius for getting us so involved that days later we're still angry.

Admit it. Football hasn't been this much fun since Florida State was missing field goals wide right.


As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a living treasure of sports history. A recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- he has earned himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was recently honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America for 2009.

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