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September 20, 2013

NFL: Severals Colts returning to Bay Area home

QB Luck facing college coach Harbaugh for first time

INDIANAPOLIS — While it's doubtful that there will be any Welcome Home banners hanging from the rafters of Candlestick Park this afternoon when the Indianapolis Colts arrive to play the San Francisco 49ers (4:25 p.m., CBS Sports), there's a good chance that quarterback Andrew Luck, tight end Coby Fleener, safety Delano Howell and wide receiver Griff Whalen will be feeling a bit of nostalgia.

After all, that foursome went to college at nearby Stanford University in Palo Alto. Their coach at Stanford? How about 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh. In fact, several former members of the Stanford coaching staff will be on the San Francisco sidelines as assistants to Harbaugh.

Luck and Harbaugh have both tried to play down any feel-good aspect to the pre-game hype. This is a business trip, after all. Maybe a few pre-game or post-game handshakes. Perhaps an extended chat during warm-ups.

Just ask Luck, Fleener, or Harbaugh about any college reunions and all you'll get in response are a few short responses. That's to be expected. They have been wearing their game faces all week long.

“It [their relationship] doesn’t concern me. [San Francisco's] defense concerns me,” the Colts quarterback said late last week. “It’s good enough that you don’t worry about anything else. [Harbaugh] definitely helped getting me on the right path to being a pro quarterback.”

As Luck allowed himself to think about his time playing for the 49ers coach, the memories started to come.

“Coach Harbaugh was great in a lot of aspects. Creating competition was one of the great things he did at Stanford. The way he created his program, it was competition in everything you do,” he recalled. “I took that to heart as a freshman. You have to compete at whatever spot you were on the depth chart, if you’re red-shirting, if you’re the starter. I tried to carry the ethos with me at Stanford and here.”

The coach, when pressed, let his guard down as well. He recalled when he first recruited the quarterback, who grew up in Houston, Texas, and the game he watched Luck play.

“He was playing for Stratford High School. Just pinpoint accuracy and great command of the offense, the team, his throws, his mechanics. He had a couple balls, one in particular that really stands out. He threw a post route to a receiver and hit the receiver in stride and then the ball somehow got almost flipped to the free safety who intercepted it. It was just one of the freakiest plays I’ve ever seen,” Harbaugh remembered. “I was sitting with Andrew’s dad, Oliver. I bet he recalls it as well. But we turned back and watched Andrew’s body language after that and that was really impressive. There was no sign of flinching or pounding or clapping his hands or anything like that. I remember him going over to the player and talking to him and just patting him on the hip and everything. Then that youngster made a couple nice plays after that. They ended up winning the game by a couple scores. But that always sticks out in my mind. Speaks volumes about Andrew.”

Oliver Luck, who played quarterback for several years in the National Football League, was in favor of his son playing for Harbaugh and heading to the west coast for college.

“I remember Andrew was a junior in high school and we were watching a game when the news flashed across that Jim Harbaugh was hired by Stanford,” he told Colts.com. “I remember saying to Andrew, ‘Hey, that’s kind of interesting. Stanford offers a great school academically. Boy, Coach Harbaugh could teach you a little about playing quarterback.’ I think it got Andrew to thinking a little bit. He [eventually] went out there for a [recruiting] trip.”

Harbaugh admits to having mixed feelings about today's game. Happy for the success of a former player. Not pleased about facing that player in a game situation.

“Yes, I knew [the time] would [come],” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘That will be a big challenge.’ Like a lot of the players that come out of college football in general, you can identify the really good ones and you figure you’ll be playing against them. That’s the way with 31 other teams getting their picks. As it relates to Andrew Luck, Griff Whalen, Coby Fleener and Delano Howell, that ended up being the case with all of them.”

The Colts quarterback was just happy for the opportunity to learn from Harbaugh.

“He was great, not only playing quarterback but growing up, being a college kid, the on- and off-the field stuff that comes with the position,” said Luck. “I feel very fortunate to have played under him three years. [I]learned a lot.”

His dad liked how things turned out too, even if it means the two squaring off on opposite sidelines today.

“Jim did a tremendous job. He really did,” Oliver Luck said. “I think he is one of the best coaches who works with quarterbacks, not a position coach but a guy who can work with quarterbacks. He is one of the best. He did a great job with Andrew. [Harbaugh] is very talented.”

The San Francisco coach isn't surprised by the younger Luck's early NFL success.

“That he would be this good? No, no surprise there,” Harbaugh said.

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