Jim Harbaugh is in his first year at Michigan, after coaching with many soon-to-be successful coaches at Stanford.
Jim Harbaugh is in his first year at Michigan, after coaching with many soon-to-be successful coaches at Stanford.

Welcome back to six degrees! Here’s how it works…every week, I’ll start with Northwestern’s opponent and follow my stream of consciousness until I get to something interesting and rankable. Then, I’ll rank the top six of that category which relates to the Wildcats’ opponent for the week.

This week: Michigan.

The Wolverines are off to a solid start in 2015, currently sitting at 4-1, their only loss coming at the hands of equally impressive Utah. Michigan has the second-best scoring defense in the country (Northwestern has the best), and seems infinitely “tougher” than last year. That intangible “toughness” traces back to new head coach Jim Harbaugh, who you may have heard comes from a coaching family. Harbaugh’s father Jack coached at Western Kentucky, his brother John leads the Ravens, and his brother-in-law Tom Crean makes funny faces while coaching Indiana basketball. Three current NFL coordinators (Vic Fangio, Greg Roman, Pep Hamilton) coached under Jim at Stanford.

In addition, several college coaches have Harbaugh connections, which necessitates SIX DEGREES-CEPTION, where I’ll connect Harbaugh’s protégées back to Harbaugh in a roundabout way. The former Harbaugh assistants are ranked by strangeness of connection, with the most roundabout path to Jim coming in at number one.

6. Willie Taggart. Taggart has a pretty direct line of connection to the Harbaugh family: he played quarterback for Jack Harbaugh at Western Kentucky from 1994-1998. After his graduation, Taggart stayed on at his alma mater until 2006 in a variety of offensive assistant positions. When Taggart was ready for a step up, his college coach’s son was there, and Taggart coached running backs for Jim Harbaugh at Stanford from 2007-2009. In 2010, Taggart took over as head coach at his alma mater, Western Kentcky, we he stayed for three years before moving to the University of South Florida, where he remains head coach today.

5. Mike Sanford, Jr. Sanford is not a head coach, but he’s a fast riser in the college coaching world. He is in his first season as Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator after only one year as OC at his alma mater, Boise State. Prior to Boise, Sanford worked for longtime Harbaugh associate David Shaw at Stanford. How did Sanford get hitched to the Harbaugh bandwagon? It’s pretty simple, actually. Sanford’s father, Mike, Sr., was wide receivers coach for the Chargers when Jim Harbaugh was a quarterback for the team. Harbaugh often played catch with the younger Sanford on the sideline, and Sanford, Jr. used his father’s relationship with Jim to land a job as an offensive assistant at Stanford in 2007.

4. David Shaw. Harbaugh’s successor at Stanford has clear ties to the Cardinal (he played wide receiver there from 1991-1994), but his Harbaugh connection is murkier. Immediately after retiring from the NFL, Jim Harbaugh took his first full-time coaching job, as quarterback coach for Bill Callahan with the Oakland Raiders. Harbaugh got his QB gig after the previous coach of the position, a certain David Shaw, left the Bay Area to coach wide outs for the Baltimore Ravens. When Shaw left the Ravens after the 2005 season, he joined Harbaugh’s staff at the University of San Diego, then moved with the coach to Stanford, and the rest is history. Jim left for the 49ers, and Shaw is now in charge of his alma mater, despite a rough start to this season against Northwestern.

3. Brian Polian. Polian worked for Harbaugh at Stanford for one season, as special teams coach in 2010. After two more seasons coaching punt coverage, one on the Farm and one at Texas A&M, Polian was named head coach at Nevada. The assumption that any connection between Polian and Harbaugh dates back to Brian Polian’s father Bill is correct. Bill Polian built the Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers, and Indianapolis Colts into playoff contenders and entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015. Jim Harbaugh’s first NFL head coach was Ted Marchibroda, who came to Indy from…Buffalo, where he served as offensive coordinator under coach Marv Levy and G.M. Bill Polian.

2. Derek Mason. Mason coached defensive backs for Harbaugh at Stanford in 2010, then stayed on as defensive coordinator under David Shaw. In 2014, Shaw left the Bay Area to become head coach at academic comparable Vanderbilt, where he’s had a hard time getting wins in his first two seasons, but stole quarterback recruit Deuce Wallace from Northwestern. How does Mason fit into the Harbaugh fold? Well, he came to Stanford from the Minnesota Vikings, where he served as defensive backs coach under Brad Childress. Childress, who also coached Mason at Northern Arizona University, spent six years as offensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles when…John Harbaugh coached the Birds’ special teams.

1. Scott Shafer. The windiest path onto the Harbaugh trail comes courtesy of Shafer, who was Harbaugh’s defensive coordinator at Stanford in 2007. From there, he went to Michigan, where he coached the defense for a year under Rich Rodriguez, before resigning in disgrace and finding refuge with Doug Marrone at Syracuse. After four years as the Orange’s defensive coordinator, Shafer was promoted to head coach when Marrone left for the Buffalo Bills. Shafer’s road to the Harbaughs goes through another coaching family, the Mallorys. He worked with Mike Mallory at Northern Illinois and Illinois, and served as a graduate assistant at Indiana under Mallory’s father Bill. Indiana was the last coaching stop for Bill Mallory, who’d previously served as a head coach at Colorado and Miami (OH), and got his first coaching job as an assistant at Bowling Green, where one of his first players was…Jack Harbaugh.

In this edition of six degrees-ception, it always comes back to the Harbaughs.