By Mark Soltau
STANFORD, Calif. - Tavita Pritchard returns to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Saturday, only in a different role for the Stanford football team. Instead of playing quarterback, he'll be roaming the sideline as a defensive assistant as the fourth-ranked Cardinal tackle 20th-ranked USC.
In 2007, Pritchard engineered one of the biggest upsets in college football history. Making his first collegiate start, he led Stanford to an improbable 24-23 victory over the second-ranked Trojans by tossing a game-winning 10-yard touchdown pass to Mark Bradford with 49 seconds remaining, forever endearing himself to Cardinal fans.
"That was fun," Pritchard said this week. "People always bring it up. It's funny to hear the stories of where they were, because everyone can recall where they were when they heard we were driving to win the game. They have their little anecdotes, like I had to find a TV with Versus. I'm glad my teammates and I could be a part of that."
After graduating with a degree in communications in 2009, Pritchard called Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh to feel him out about coaching.
Harbaugh didn't have any openings on his staff, but offered him a spot as a volunteer assistant.
"I jumped at the opportunity and haven't really looked back," said Pritchard, who worked with the offensive coaches, helping any way he could.
"I was filling up Coach Harbaugh's refrigerator with Diet Pepsi and later on I was making tip sheets for him," Pritchard said. "What you do in this position is not necessarily glamorous all the time, it's getting to be a part of something bigger. It's everything I loved about being a football player - the camaraderie and striving for a bigger goal as a team. I get that same kind of fix being on staff here."
Harbaugh led Stanford to a 12-1 season, capped by a resounding 40-12 win against Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl. Soon after, he left to become head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, and assistant coach David Shaw was named the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football.
Once Shaw assembled his staff, he had one vacant position for a defensive assistant. Impressed by Pritchard's work ethic and knowledge of the game, he offered him the job.
"I told Tavita that when Andrew Luck became our starting quarterback (2009), that one day I was going to hire him," said Shaw. "He is one of the more cerebral players I've ever been around at any level, just understanding offenses and defenses. We put him on defense - really it was just going to be for a week - to help Coach (Derek) Mason and Coach (Jason) Tarver in the off-season until we got a full staff hired. Coach Mason came to me after about four days and said, `You can't take him from me.' He's going to be an outstanding coach for a long time."
Pritchard has embraced his new role. He provides tip sheets, enters data for film study, assembles weekly playbooks and occasionally provides input for game plans.
"It's turning out to be a great thing as far as my career and how this year has gone," Pritchard said. "I'm just learning a ton. The opportunity to work with Coach Mason and Coach Tarver - I couldn't ask for a better opportunity.
"The amount of defensive knowledge is just staggering. I'm a football junkie and just love to sit there and hear those guys talk."
"He's bringing that offensive mindset to the secondary," said Thomas. "That's exactly what we needed to basically take what we thought were tendencies and have him reassure us. Having him in the defensive secondary room is vital to us recognizing formations and plays."
There's just one problem: Thomas is still uncomfortable calling his former teammate "Coach Pritchard."
"It's hard for me to think of him as a coach," Thomas laughed, "especially with the younger guys around."
Pritchard understands, but figures the senior free safety owes him.
"Mike's a great guy, but I give him a hard time, too," said Pritchard.
"Against Notre Dame my junior year - when he was still on offense - he was playing quarterback in our Wildcat formation and I was lined up as a wide receiver and I threw him a block. I said, `Mike you better remember that when you move on to NFL riches.' ''
"He's a tremendous competitor and I'm glad to have at least gotten a chance to play with him," Thomas said. "I definitely have a lot of respect for him and see him becoming a great coach down the road."
As for game days, Pritchard said it is much tougher being on the sideline than in the huddle.
"I have experienced more anxiety and nerves than I ever did playing, because there's just so much less control being on the other side of the white lines and not being able to actually go out there and fix it yourself," he said. "You just have to kind of let them do it, and they've done great."
Especially with players like Howell and Thomas.
"It's special," said Pritchard. "I saw these guys when they were freshmen. And to be able to see them grow up and lead this team is fun for me to see. The leadership they provide, you can't measure it. You should see these young guys look up to them."
No matter where Pritchard's coaching career takes him, he will always feel a special bond with his former teammates, who helped turn a struggling football program into a national title contender. Stanford enters Saturday's contest with a school-record 15-game winning streak, the longest in the nation.
"The class I came in with - everyone talks about how we were 1-11 - until coach Harbaugh got here," he said. "Those were the dark ages."
"Our class, we were prepared to shoulder that burden. We at least took the approach, `Hey, let's get this thing turned around.' And obviously Coach Harbaugh and Coach Shaw were the right guys for the job. They gave us the tools to at least turn the ship in the right direction. However small part we played in that, we're very proud of."