Harbaugh spent the 2004-2006 seasons at the University of San Diego, a non-scholarship program in the Pioneer League, a NCAA FCS (formerly I-AA) football school.
All he did in three seasons, with guys paying their own way, was go 29-6, win a pair of Pioneer League titles and be named I-AA Mid-Major Champions.
Now that he's at Stanford, armed with one of the best combinations of athletics and academics, Harbaugh has brought his uncanny ability to recruit the right balance of student and athlete.
"I felt Harbaugh was going to have success at Stanford because I've seen him build USD into a premier D-1AA program as a non-scholarship school," said Ray Toilolo, the father of Stanford freshman Levine Toilolo, and a coach at Helix HS in San Diego.
Now it seems he is putting the finishing touch on what should be the second straight stellar class for the Cardinal.
Yes, that's right, finishing touch. Harbaugh has 23 commits in the first week of July, and only 25 scholarships to give. Stanford's not a school that can afford to oversign: their recruits are never a risk to not qualify.
So maybe it's a stretch to say that the final touch is ready. Sure, there will probably be a few guys on Stanford's recruiting board, who've given verbal commitments, that will end up signing elsewhere. And its likely Stanford will end up with quite a few more commitments who'll eventually sign with the Cardinal.
But the main premise is that Stanford recruiting has undergone a major transformation since the Buddy Teevens/Walt Harris years.
The net has been cast wider (Stanford has more commitments from Texas and as many from Georgia as they do their home state of California).
The talent is getting stronger (last year, Stanford had two Top 100 players and a five-star, this year, they have another Top 100 member).
And the enthusiasm is growing. Which can be traced back to Harbaugh and his passion for recruiting.
His first class was ranked 43rd nationally, not much time given to him to finish the class. Of the three four-stars in that class, one was a kicker, David Green, and another was Matt Masifilo, a defensive tackle from Hawaii. The third, Kellen Kiilsgaard, is now a top baseball prospect for the Cardinal, having given up football.
The second class Harbaugh signed was also ranked 43rd, thought it boasted a five-star quarterback in Andrew Luck and four-stars on offense in center David DeCastro, tight end Konrad Reuland and running back Delano Howell.
But it was while he was putting together that second class that he really got things going, but with a player that would headline his third class: Shayne Skov.
Skov committed to Stanford on September 1st, 2007, the first day juniors could receive official offers. The date was significant because it was also the first day Harbaugh coached a game for the Cardinal, a loss to UCLA in the season opener.
But the first game loss, in retrospect, wasn't the biggest story of that day. It was Skov saying he wanted to be a Cardinal.
When Skov finally signed his NLI with the Cardinal 17 months after committing, he was the headliner in the 2009 class, one of the best classes Stanford has had in years.
The eventual Army All-American was a five-star, and led a list that also included nine four-star players, four of them ranked in the top six nationally at their position.
Zach Ertz was the second player to commit to the Cardinal in the class of 2009, picking Stanford just weeks after their stunning win over USC and the week before the Cardinal would end Harbaugh's first season with a win over Bay Area rival Cal.
The third player to join the fray was Levine Toilolo, who spurned Florida for the Cardinal.
Toilolo felt he'd get the best combination of academics and football by picking the Cardinal.
"The Stanford education speaks for itself," said Ray Toilolo. "It ranks up there with the big boys. As for Coach Harbaugh, he wants to play and compete with the big boys as well. He's just a winner and has the desire and passion to provide a winning product for Stanford football. He's not going to say something that he doesn't believe is possible. When he started talking about Pac-10 Championships and the National Championships, I thought, ‘man you just don't throw those words around to recruits if you don't believe it'. These are the same recruits who talk to other coaches at USC, LSU, Florida, Ohio State. So Coach Harbaugh really believes he can build a national power. He's making a statement you will have the best of both worlds. The days are gone that only good students will come play football at Stanford. Harbaugh is recruiting elite scholar-athletes. How many times have you seen Stanford in some of these elite players top five? Harbaugh has these guys believing."
The atmosphere at Stanford has changed tremendously under Harbaugh's watch, which was something that caught Toilolo's attention.
"He had his choice to pretty much go anywhere in the country and play in the SEC, Big 12, Big 10 but his comfort level came from being surrounded with like minded people, others who work hard in the class as well as on the field," said Ray Toilolo. "He was drawn to an atmosphere of family. The upperclassmen were key to his decision along with the type of guys he got to know in the 2009 Class and those good relationships. Even today, he said the veterans have welcomed the freshmen class with respect and support. They have been instrumental to the development of the freshmen class. They are always helping the younger guys and are genuine about it all. He said they were the same during the visits as they are today, encouraging and helpful. The family atmosphere is real at Stanford. No big egos just big hearts. They want to win and win now. Harbaugh has them believing they can."
Toilolo said the coaching staff made a huge impression on their family, and heavily impacted Levine's decision.
"His other comfort level was his relationship with Harbaugh and staff. They are all just down to earth and real people. Harbaugh's NFL experience was a plus, and those on the staff as well, with Coach (Ron) Lynn, Coach (David) Shaw and others."
Toilolo has seen it first hand, and he knows that it's continuing to be the case.
"Stanford's momentum from 2009 is really carrying over to the 2010 class and that is a credit to Coach Harbaugh and his staff.
The 23 commitments come from all over the country. Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Texas and Utah all have a prospect heading to The Farm.
From the Northwest to the Southeast, from the Southwest to the Northeast and the Midwest and Midlands, the Cardinal are racking up top prospects.
This year's headliner, to date, is Tai-ler Jones, from Gainesville (Ga.). The four-star receiver is one of the top pass-catchers in the country.
"It came down to that if I couldn't play football anymore, that was the No. 1 campus I'd want to go to as a regular student. The coaches gained my trust in such a short period of time that I felt they were going to take care of me, regardless of what happened," Jones told TheBootleg.com.
Louis Young liked Stanford so much, the four-star cornerback has committed their twice, firming up a once soft-commitment, to the Cardinal.
"When I made my commitment at first I felt it was kind of early, but there were a lot of people trying to persuade me away for their benefit or tell me the cons about Stanford and not necessarily the pros," Young told TheBootleg. "[Recommitting] was about more than just football. Football is not always going to be there. I was talking to [co-defensive coordinator] Ron Lynn and he was saying if my goal is to be to go the league for that 10 years max, we're going to be set up for life with the connections from Stanford, with a Stanford degree and just having a relationship with the Stanford community. That just speaks volumes."
Stanford's class is covering all the bases. They have two quarterback commits, and verbals from a running back, two receivers, three tight ends, four offensive linemen, four defensive linemen, three linebackers, two safeties and corners plus a kicker.
And the Cardinal are still in the mix for several elite prospects, most notably Malcolm Jones, ranked #1 in California for all prospects in the class of 2010, and an elite running back who could be a big-time linebacker if he chose to play defense in college.
So while the final touches aren't ready to be put on just yet, and even with minimal scholarships left to hand out, Harbaugh's enthusiasm and joy in recruiting will still be on display the next seven months, even with a season still to play.
Why shouldn't it be? He's already landed a commitment for the 2011 class, Amir Carlisle, one of the elite prospects in Northern California, who was named by Scout.com last fall as one of the 15 "SuperSoph's" in the Golden State. The running back committed last month, just as his sophomore year ended.
"He was absolutely ready to be a Cardinal," said his father Duane.
Which is what Harbaugh has 23 recruits already ready to be.