SPORTS DIGEST: Chargers hope to make statement with Harbaugh hire

By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

Seven years after moving north from San Diego, the Los Angeles Chargers are finally trying to fit in.

At 1 p.m. Feb. 1, the Chargers will hold a press conference to introduce Jim Harbaugh as their next head coach. Harbaugh is fresh off leading the University of Michigan to the national championship in college football.

He replaces Brandon Staley, who the Chargers fired in December after a 63-21 loss to the Raiders. Staley had a 24-24 record in his three seasons with the Chargers.

The Chargers are paying Harbaugh a reported $16 million a year to be more than a .500 coach.

Harbaugh is the best coach the Chargers have had since the Spanos family, which owns the Chargers, sided with general manager A.J. Smith and fired head coach Marty Schottenheimer in 2006 after a 14-2 season that ended in a playoff loss to New England.

Harbaugh immediately legitimizes the Chargers and makes them contenders in the AFC Western Division, despite the presence of the Kansas City Chiefs, who have won the division title eight straight times.

He has been a head coach four previous places: the University of San Diego, Stanford, the San Francisco 49ers and Michigan. He has won in all four places. 

A former quarterback at Michigan, he spent 14 years in the NFL with four different teams: the Chicago Bears, the Indianapolis Colts, the Baltimore Ravens and the San Diego Chargers. He started 140 of the 177 games he played in, going 66-74 as a starter. 

He played with the Chargers in 1999 and 2000, his last two years in the league, going 6-11 in 17 starts over those two years.

Harbaugh brings with him an edge. He wore out his welcome with the 49ers and was suspended twice last season at Michigan.

He will fit right in here finally giving the Chargers a franchise face that can keep up with whatever the Dodgers, Lakers, Rams and USC Trojans can throw at the public.

“Jim Harbaugh is football personified, and I can think of no one better to lead the Chargers forward,” team owner/chairman Dean Spanos said in a statement Jan. 24 announcing Harhaugh’s hiring. “The son of a coach, brother of a coach and father of a coach who himself was coached by names like (Bo) Schembechler and (Mike) Ditka, for the past two decades Jim has led hundreds of men to success everywhere he’s been — as their coach. And today, Jim Harbaugh returns to the Chargers, this time as our coach.”

Harbaugh said it was good to be returning to the Chargers.

“I’m remarkably fortunate to have been afforded the privilege of coaching at places where life’s journey has created strong personal connections for me,” he said in the team’s statement. “From working as an assistant coach at Western Kentucky alongside my father, Jack, and time as an assistant with the Raiders, to being a head coach at USD, Stanford, the 49ers and Michigan — each of those opportunities carried significance, each felt personal. 

“When I played for the Chargers, the Spanos family could not have been more gracious or more welcoming. Being back here feels like home, and it’s great to see that those things haven’t changed.”

In his statement, Harbaugh acknowledged the Chargers’ recent struggles.

“The only job you start at the top is digging a hole, so we know we’ve got to earn our way,” he said. “Be better today than yesterday. Be better tomorrow than today. 

“My priorities are faith, family and football, and we are going to attack each with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind. This organization is putting in the work — investing capital, building infrastructure and doing everything within its power to win. Great effort equals great results, and we’re just getting started.”

The Chargers have some very good players on their roster. Quarterback Justin Herbert is considered one of the four or five best young quarterbacks in the game. Keenan Allen is an elite wide receiver. Rashawn Slater is a premium offensive tackle. Defensively, they have all stars in edge rushers Kahlil Mack and Joey Boza and safety Derwin James.

But in the seven years they have played in Los Angeles, the Chargers have one playoff win and that came in the wild card round of the 2018 playoffs.

The Chargers made the playoffs in 2022, Staley’s second season with the team, but blew a 27-0 first half lead against the Jacksonville Jaguars, eventually losing 31-30.

Along with Harbaugh, the Chargers have hired Joe Hortiz as the new general manager, replacing Tom Telesco who was fired the same day as Staley.

Hortiz had been the director of player personnel for the Baltimore Ravens, a team coached by Harbaugh’s older brother, John.

It is telling that Harbaugh was hired first and that Hortiz has connections to the Ravens. Harbaugh will be running the football operations for the Chargers. He will have the last say on roster moves, free agent signings and — most importantly — the draft.

Whether Harbaugh’s hiring will change the landscape of the region’s sports scene will depend on how fast the Chargers start winning. L.A. fans love a winner and loathe a loser.

For most of the seven years they have been in Los Angeles, they have seemed like a team without a home. SoFi Stadium may have 70,000 fans every Chargers home game, but rarely are Chargers fans in a majority.

The home game against the Cowboys earlier in the year in particular seemed like a Dallas home game.

Harbaugh’s presence will start bringing more Chargers fans to the games. If the wins come, the fans will follow.

NASCAR RETURNS: For the third year in a row, NASCAR comes to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum with the Busch Light Clash being held Feb. 4. Racing begins at 1:30 p.m. on the Coliseum’s temporary, quarter-mile asphalt track with the NASCAR Mexico Series’ King Taco LA Batalla en El Coliseo, followed by the NASCAR Cup Series’ Busch Light Clash at 5 p.m.

NASCAR is going all out to promote the race, capitalizing on L.A.’s ties to the Latino sporting community by naming boxing champion Canelo Alvarez as the grand marshal of the race. 

There will be 23 drivers in the final race competing for 150 laps. Only green flag laps will count and there will be a break at the midway point of the race after 75 laps.

The lineup for 22 spots will be determined by the finishing positions in the heat races and the last chance qualifier. The 23rd spot will go to the driver with the highest spot in the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series standings who hasn’t already qualified.

There will be four 25-lap heat races. The top-five finishers in the heat races advance to the main event.

The last chance qualifier is for the drivers who did not advance in the heat races. It will be 75 laps and the top-two finishers advance to the Clash.

The heat race starting lineups will be determined through practice sessions. The field will be split into three practice groups and the drivers’ fastest lap time in practice will be used to set the starting order for the heat races.

Joey Logano won the inaugural Busch Light Clash in 2022 and Martin Truex Jr. won last year’s race.

HOT SEAT: Last June, after the Lakers made it all the to the NBA Western Conference finals, first-year head coach Darvin Ham was being hailed for the job he did bringing the team back from a 2-10 start to the conference finals.

When the Lakers won the NBA’s first in-season tournament in early December, Ham was again hailed. Two months later, he is on the hot seat as the Lakers struggle to reach the .500 mark only to lose again once they reach it.

Last June and in December, LeBron James had Ham’s back. Here at the start of February, not so much. 

The Lakers lost to the Atlanta Hawks Jan. 30, 138-122, in a game that Anthony Davis missed because of a sore Achilles’ tendon and left hip spasms. 

It was the Lakers’ fourth game in six nights, a spell that included a double-overtime game against the Golden State Warriors Jan. 27 (a win) and a game in Houston Jan. 29 (a 16-point loss).

James didn’t pull any punches after the loss to the Hawks, which left the Lakers at 24-25.

“On any given night, [we can] beat any team in the NBA,” he said. “And then on any given night, we can get [beat] by any given team in the NBA.”

James is unhappy with the way Ham uses his roster. The team is hoping that another miracle happens at the trade deadline like last season, when the Lakers turned around their season after acquiring Rui Hachimura, Jarrod Vanderbilt and D’Angelo Russell.

With the addition of Christopher Wood in the offseason and the continued development of guard Austin Reaves, the Lakers were supposed to be contenders in the NBA Western Conference this season. Instead, they are tied for ninth in the conference, which would put them in the play-in tournament once again.

The Lakers are said to be interested in trading Russell for Hawks guard Dejounte Murray. In their matchup Jan. 30, Murray showed up Russell, scoring 24 points with 9 assists to Russell’s 9 points and 5 assists.

The Lakers need to improve defensively and they need a third scorer to mix with James and Davis. Reaves and Russell have both shown they aren’t going to be that player every night.

General manager Rob Pelinka has a week to tweak the roster and give Ham a better chance to win. Unless team owner Jeanie Buss loses her patience in the next seven days.

City News Service contributed to this story.