The Clippers had an opportunity to move to the top of the Western Conference, and it was up to them to take advantage of the situation.
Of course, it wasn’t going to be easy against a Minnesota Timberwolves team that had the best record in the West and a half-game lead over the Clippers.
The Clippers vowed to be ready because so much was at stake and also because coach Tyronn Lue said one of their goals is to secure the best record in the NBA by season’s end.
But things didn’t work out for the Clippers, who couldn’t overcome the Timberwolves’ stingy defense in a 121-100 loss Monday at Crypto.com Arena.
As a result, the Clippers dropped to third in the West and are 1½-games behind Minnesota and a half-game behind Oklahoma City at 35-16.
“I mean, it’s a good test for us,” Lue said before the game. “I understand they’re playing great basketball and they’re a really good team. So, just up for the challenge. I mean, it’s not going to end our season one way or another. But we just get a chance to play against one of the elite teams in the West, the best team in the West and see where we stack up.”
The Timberwolves have proved their worth all season on the defensive end, holding teams to the lowest scoring totals (107.1 points per game) and lowest field-goal percentage (44.9%) in the NBA.
And the Clippers found that defense a big problem for much of the first half.
Paul George, who became the franchise’s all-time leader in three-pointers, fired off a three late in the second quarter to give the Clippers their first lead of the game, and James Harden followed that with a three-pointer as the buzzer sounded to give the Clippers a four-point lead at halftime.
1. Clippers forward Paul George argues a call with an official. 2. Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, second from left, watches during the Clippers’ blowout loss. 3. Clippers center Daniel Theis, left, and Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert chase after a loose ball. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
In the third quarter, however, the Clippers experienced the Timberwolves’ sterling defense. Minnesota held the Clippers to 19 points on 35% shooting in the quarter. The Clippers shot 40.5% from the field in the game.
That put the Clippers in a 17-point hole, and that hole got deeper in the fourth quarter when they went down by 24. Lue pulled his starters with 4:56 left.
Kawhi Leonard, who was eight for 17 from the field, and George, who was five for 16 from the field, both finished with 18 points. James Harden, who shot five for 13 from the field, had 17 points.
Eric Bieniemy will become UCLA offensive coordinator: reports
Many wondered when Eric Bieniemy would take the next step from offensive coordinator to head coach in the NFL.
Things didn’t look promising when he was not retained by new Washington Commanders head coach Dan Quinn, but not many could have predicted this.
In a shocking move, he is reportedly headed back to UCLA, where he coached two decades ago.
“This is a great opportunity for me to help support DeShaun [Foster] as a new head coach, to work with him and for him as well,” Bieniemy told CBS Sports.
“It is an opportunity for my family and I to return back to a place we once called home. This is a great opportunity for me to utilize all of my experience working with future Hall of Fame players and a Hall of Fame head coach [Andy Reid] to help teach and inspire young men what it takes to be successful on and off the field.”
ESPN says it is a two-year deal for the 54-year-old.
“I chose to fly under the radar during this hiring process, and my experience generated a lot of interest from a number of NFL teams prior to coming to this decision.”
Bieniemy became a hot candidate after his success as the offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs. He spent 10 seasons with the Chiefs, and he won two Super Bowls with Kansas City before heading to Washington.
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Bieniemy did not have similar success in the nation’s capital, though. Washington quarterback Sam Howell is no Patrick Mahomes, but the Commanders went 4-13, and their offense ranked 21st in yards per game.
UCLA has had some coaching turnover this offseason. Chip Kelly left his head coaching gig with the Bruins to join Ohio State as offensive coordinator earlier this month.
UCLA went 8-5 last season but finished 4-5 in conference play. The Bruins will play in the Big Ten next season.
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Eric Bieniemy set to join DeShaun Foster's UCLA staff as offensive coordinator
DeShaun Foster’s first hire has a throwback feel.
The new UCLA football coach is enlisting an old Bruins assistant as his offensive coordinator, finalizing an agreement to bring in Eric Bieniemy nearly two decades after he was the team’s running backs coach and recruiting coordinator.
The move to hire Bieniemy was confirmed Saturday by a person close to the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity because the deal was not officially completed. ESPN reported Bieniemy would receive a two-year contract.
Bieniemy, 54, has spent most of his time since leaving UCLA in the NFL, winning two Super Bowls in five seasons as offensive coordinator with the Kansas City Chiefs before faltering in his only season in the same role with the Washington Commanders.
He will presumably bring a pro-style offense to the Bruins, whose personnel is suited for that scheme because it’s similar to what they ran under former coach Chip Kelly before he left this month to become Ohio State’s offensive coordinator. Bieniemy’s hiring also provides the first clues as to Foster’s stylistic preferences given Foster said he intended to hire someone who shared his football DNA.
While at UCLA, Bieniemy recruited star running back Maurice Jones-Drew, among others, earning a massive raise and the title of recruiting coordinator in addition to his role as running backs coach after then-Texas coach Mack Brown tried to add Bieniemy to his staff. The Bruins also provided assistance from the UCLA/Orthopaedic Hospital Center for Cerebral Palsy for Bieniemy’s then-10-year-old son, Eric Bieniemy III, who suffered from the disorder that impairs motor functioning.
During a 2005 interview with The Times, Bieniemy said the root of strong recruiting was relentlessly building personal relationships.
“It’s all about being aggressive throughout that recruiting process,” Bieniemy said. “It’s all about being seen, also. If we’re doing those things in the right way, any kid in his right mind, if they have the opportunity to go to school here, they wouldn’t turn down that opportunity.
“We know we’re going to lose some battles. But you know what, we’re going to win more battles than we’re going to lose.”
Leaving UCLA before the 2006 season to become running backs coach for the Minnesota Vikings, Bieniemy has spent most of the last two decades in the NFL with the exception of two seasons as offensive coordinator at his alma mater, Colorado. The school offered Bieniemy the head coaching job in 2020, but he declined.
In recent years, Bieniemy has reportedly interviewed for 15 NFL head coaching jobs without landing an offer, making some question his people skills and others lambaste teams for passing him over so many times.
Born in New Orleans, Bieniemy and his family later moved to Southern California and he starred at running back for Bishop Amat High before choosing Colorado over USC.
During his time with Kansas City, Bieniemy combined with coach Andy Reid to devise one of the NFL’s top offenses centered on quarterback Patrick Mahomes. But Bieniemy’s brief stint in Washington, where he was given full play-calling duties, was far rockier, leading to his departure earlier this month after Dan Quinn replaced Ron Rivera as the Commanders coach.
In an email to ESPN on Saturday, Bieniemy disputed reports he was let go.
“Contrary to what some think and what has been put out in the media, I was not fired,” Bieniemy wrote. “I actually just chose not to stay. Learned a lot and that is always a good thing.”
A recent story in the Washington Post described Bieniemy as falling short beyond his role as the architect of an offense that ranked tied for No. 23 in the NFL in scoring. While he was universally praised as hardworking, Bieniemy was known for a stubborn overreliance on throwing the ball and failing to cultivate strong relationships with players.
However, Bieniemy remained so popular in Kansas City that the team received permission to have him speak with players before its appearance in the AFC championship game.
“Just having him back in the building was really cool, listening to him talk, his energy,” Mahomes told reporters earlier this month. “I think guys had a little bit of chill bumps, like, ‘Hey, EB’s back here.’ Obviously, he didn’t get that head coaching opportunity, but I’m excited for him to continue to coach football and to continue to make his impact on the game.”
Lessons from Jim Harbaugh's Chargers playing days: 'He's ready for the fight'
Ryan Leaf needed an ally.
The No. 2 pick in the 1998 NFL Draft was coming off a disastrous rookie season for the San Diego Chargers. Two touchdowns to 15 interceptions in 10 games. Eight fumbles and 22 sacks.
The young quarterback completed 45.3 percent of his passes and was benched multiple times. He alienated teammates and verbally accosted a reporter in the locker room. He recently described himself as acting “poorly … as a professional.”
The Chargers fired head coach Kevin Gilbride in October and finished the season 5-11. Leaf characterized the “mentality” of most in the organization at that time as, “If (Leaf) gets hit by a car on the way to work today, we’d be OK.”
That offseason, he was desperate for someone who viewed him differently, who focused on his potential and not his transgressions.
That someone became Jim Harbaugh.
“Everybody else was just like, ‘Screw this kid. I don’t want anything to do with him,’” Leaf recently told The Athletic. “(Harbaugh) wasn’t that guy, ever. He was always there to try to help.”
In two seasons playing quarterback for the Chargers, Harbaugh went 6-11 as a starter, throwing more interceptions than touchdowns. San Diego went 1-15 in 2000. Harbaugh’s final NFL pass attempt came in a Week 11 loss to the Miami Dolphins at Qualcomm Stadium.
Up until three weeks ago, this two-year stretch of Harbaugh’s legendary football life was a relative afterthought. But after Harbaugh was introduced as Los Angeles Chargers head coach on Feb. 1 at SoFi Stadium, this unceremonious end to a 14-year playing career now has revitalized meaning.
Home Depot, ‘Ted Lasso’ and an RV: What we learned at Jim Harbaugh’s Chargers introduction
To start the news conference, the Chargers played a hype video on two screens sandwiching each side of the podium. Included were several highlights of Harbaugh in a Chargers uniform. He sat in the front row, the giddy emotion evident on his face, smiling from ear to ear as reflections of the highlights danced on his glasses.
“All of these old memories are flooding back,” Harbaugh said after taking the stage moments later.
His connection to the team, the lighting bolt logo, Southern California, the Spanos family — it all stemmed from these two seasons. In the record books, the stint exists as a 9-24 record. But in the stories from the people who lived it, those two years were so much more — the burgeoning saplings of Harbaugh’s coaching style, raucous golf cart races at training camp, passion-fueled fights with teammates and an unwavering authenticity that resonates with teammates and coaches to this day.
“He beats to his own drum,” said former Chargers running back Terrell Fletcher, “and he likes the music he plays.”
The Chargers hired Mike Riley as their new head coach after the 1998 season. Riley knew he needed a veteran presence in the quarterbacks room both as an aid and a contingency plan for Leaf. So on March 22, 1999, the Chargers traded a fifth-round pick to the Baltimore Ravens for Harbaugh, then 35 years old.
“What a great choice that was,” Riley said.
Harbaugh was a first-round pick of the Chicago Bears in 1987. In 1995, “Captain Comeback” led the Indianapolis Colts to the AFC Championship Game, beating the Chargers on his way there and making the Pro Bowl after the season. He had thrown for more than 22,000 yards by the time he joined San Diego
Riley was sitting in his office at the Chargers facility one offseason day when he glanced out the window to see rookies on the field going through a workout with the strength and conditioning staff, including lifting and carrying logs.
“You know how the weight coaches are,” Riley said with a chuckle.
As Riley looked onto the field, one player caught his eye, a lone veteran in the group of newbies.
“That’s just Jim,” Riley said. “Jim wasn’t normal.”
This is what Harbaugh brought to the Chargers when he arrived in San Diego in the spring of 1999: “He had an awareness of who he was on a team and what that would mean to the others,” Riley said.
The plan was for Harbaugh to back up Leaf. The previous year, the only other quarterback on the roster had been Craig Whelihan, a 27-year-old who was a sixth-round pick in 1995 and had seven career starts — all losses — to his name.
“We wanted to get a guy that would be not only a mentor type but would be a viable guy if something happened,” Riley said.
Minutes into the opening practice of training camp, Leaf tore the labrum in his throwing shoulder. The contingency became reality. Harbaugh was the Chargers’ starting quarterback.
He debuted for the Chargers on Sept. 19, 1999 — in Week 2, the team had a bye on opening weekend — throwing for 159 yards and two touchdowns in a 34-7 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. He suffered an elbow injury in the first quarter of the third game of the season against the Kansas City Chiefs. Veteran Erik Kramer, signed on the eve of training camp after being cut by the Bears, replaced Harbaugh and helped the Chargers overcome a 14-point deficit to win 21-14.
Kramer started the next two games, wins over the Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks (despite four interceptions from Kramer), while Harbaugh nursed the elbow and two cracked ribs. The Chargers were 4-1, with a defense led by linebacker Junior Seau and safety Rodney Harrison emerging as one of the better units in the league.
“We didn’t have a good defense,” said Fletcher. “We had a great defense.”
Harbaugh suited up against the Green Bay Packers in Week 7, but Kramer got a third consecutive start. He threw three interceptions in three quarters and was benched in favor of Harbaugh, who threw three picks of his own in the fourth. The Chargers lost, 31-3.
On the fourth play of a 34-0 loss to the Chiefs the following week, Kramer threw his 10th interception of the season. He fumbled on the next offensive series, the final snap of his NFL career. Harbaugh entered and went on to start the last nine games of the season. Kramer was forced to medically retire midseason because of a neck injury. He recalled waking up in the middle of the night unable to move in the days after the Kansas City game.
The Chargers lost six straight games to fall to 4-7. After Week 2, San Diego failed to score more than 21 points in nine straight games. Frustrations mounted among members of a defense that would finish the 1999 season allowing the fewest yards per play in the league.
“We were a little overmatched offensively,” Kramer said. “We didn’t have quite the talent.”
Tensions boiled over in Week 10 during a 28-9 loss at the Oakland Raiders, the fifth of six consecutive defeats. And Harbaugh was at the center of the flare-up.
The Chargers punted on all five of their first-half possessions to open the game, and safety Mike Dumas was waiting on the sideline to greet the offense after each failed drive.
“At first it was kind of encouraging. ‘Come on, offense. Let’s get it going,’” offensive tackle Vaughn Parker said. “But at a certain point in time, you’ve heard it, and it’s like, ‘We get it. We know we’re struggling. Give us a break.’”
The Chargers trailed 21-3 in the fourth quarter when Harbaugh threw an incompletion on a fourth-and-10.
“Mike said something,” Riley recalled. “Jim took offense to it.”
Dumas and Harbaugh got into a jawing match on the sideline. Television cameras picked up the spat.
“It’s really embarrassing us as a team,” Seau said at the time. “We don’t like to see any of our players and family members having a conversation like that in front of millions of people. It doesn’t need to be like that. We don’t need to expose our dirty laundry out there on the street.”
Offensive players, though, saw Harbaugh going to bat for them.
“You appreciate that, especially as an offensive line,” Parker said. “You still wanted to give a great effort for someone who was in it like you were.”
The Chargers lost, 28-9. Riley said he was jogging 20 yards behind Harbaugh and Dumas, who were continuing to yell at each other as they made their way across the field from the visitor’s bench to the Oakland Coliseum locker rooms after the game.
“They held themselves off until they got underneath the stadium and the seats before they actually went at it,” Riley said.
Fletcher pointed out that the fracas was a “football fight, not a real right.” But, he concedes, it is not often the starting quarterback is grabbing facemasks or throwing uppercuts. “That’s one thing that makes it unique,” Fletcher said, “he stuck up for himself.”
“Jim was not going to back down to anything,” Riley said. “That’s kind of his M.O. He’s ready for the fight, whatever it is.”
Harbaugh threw for 677 yards over the next two games. Three weeks after the Oakland loss, the Chargers ended their skid with a 23-10 win over the Cleveland Browns, with Harbaugh completing a season-high 69.6 percent of his passes.
“He is a mad-man competitor,” Parker said.
The Chargers won four of their final five games. The only loss came in Week 15 to the Dolphins. On the final drive, Harbaugh completed six passes to move the offense into field goal range. Kicker John Carney missed from 36 yards. San Diego lost 12-9, finishing one game back of Miami for the final wild-card spot.
The Chargers held training camp at UC San Diego during the years Harbaugh played for the team, complete with players sleeping in dorms and two-a-day practices. “Pads both times,” Fletcher said.
The field was far enough away from the dorms that the team gave players golf carts to shuttle there and back. “They were gas carts,” Parker said. “You could pop the regulator (off) and just make it so much more fast than they anticipated.” Parker remembers a “huge straightaway” on the drive from the dorms to the field.
Compulsively competitive people? Uncapped golf carts? Huge straightaway? Exhausted players craving a reprieve from the dog days of camp?
“We raced the golf carts,” Fletcher confirmed. And who was the ringleader? Fletcher pauses for a second when asked. “It might have been Jim,” he says with a laugh.
Harbaugh, months away from his 37th birthday, was pushing the carts to the limit.
“We had all kinds of things — wrecks and guys falling off,” Fletcher said. “You’d have four people in the cart, two people on the back, the cart’s scratching the ground almost because it’s almost a ton of weight on the carts.”
“Everyone was just ripping,” Parker said.
When teammates think back to 2000, these are the front-of-mind moments. Harbaugh’s levity was among the few positives in a horrific season when the Chargers did not win a game until after Thanksgiving.
Leaf had rehabbed from shoulder surgery and entered training camp in a competition with Harbaugh for the starting job. He completed his first nine pass attempts in a preseason win over the Atlanta Falcons on Aug. 18, finishing the first half with 167 yards and a touchdown.
Not long after, he claimed the starting job. And after the decision was made, Leaf said, Harbaugh was “accepting” and “just nurturing.”
“He all of a sudden became the mentor,” Leaf said. “He became the coach in that quarterback room.”
The Chargers lost the first two games of the season by four combined points, but Leaf threw five picks and lost a fumble and was benched for a Week 3 game against the Chiefs in favor of Moses Moreno. Moreno suffered a throwing-shoulder injury in the third quarter of an eventual 42-10 loss to the Chiefs.
Harbaugh saw his first action of the season the next game against Seattle after Leaf fumbled and threw an interception in the first half. Harbaugh started the next five games, but Leaf got the nod for the final six, including a Week 13 win over the Chiefs, the Chargers’ lone victory of the season.
“It challenged everything (Harbaugh) believes in,” then-quarterbacks coach Mike Johnson said of the 2000 season. “It challenged the way he believes in how you should handle coaches, how you should handle players, everything. Jim Harbaugh has probably never gone 1-15 in anything.”
“A year that’s etched in my memory,” Parker said.
Amid the losing, though, Harbaugh was still making the type of connections that would come to define him as a coach.
Leaf looked forward to Tuesdays. On the players’ off day, Leaf, Harbaugh and Moreno would play a round of golf. Each week, one quarterback rotated picking the course. Part of the selection process was identifying a course that fit one’s golf game. But Harbaugh was working on a deeper level.
“He always found a really interesting way to corroborate the golf course with kind of a message,” Leaf said.
One Tuesday, Harbaugh picked the course at Coronado to build a theme around the military.
“Everything he did had a coach feeling to it,” Leaf said. “There was always a bigger message that was being sent in everything he did, from the clothes he’s wearing to the golf course he picked for us to play at so he could share stories along the way.”
Don’t be mistaken, though: Harbaugh was vicious during these rounds. Sure, he was coaching — on these days more about life than football. He was also competing.
“They were brutal,” Leaf said. “He suffered no fools, and there was no quarter given. If it was a two-footer to win the hole, he was making you putt it out.”
Still, Harbaugh, in his way, found a way to connect with a man who had lost his connection to virtually everything else in his football life. Leaf said he invited four members of the Chargers organization to his wedding. One was Harbaugh.
“Those two years … he ended up being my best friend,” Leaf said.
It was an unlikely pairing.
“Ryan Leaf and Jim Harbaugh were oil and water,” Johnson said. “Ryan was something that Jim couldn’t understand. ‘How can you be this talented and not be more like me?’”
Johnson remembers one time in the quarterbacks room in 2000, Harbaugh turned to Leaf and said, “Look, Ryan, you’re a poor excuse of a pro athlete. Do your job and make sure you take care of the things you need to take care of to make sure you’re a pro.”
“That’s who Jim was,” Johnson said. “He was not going to allow you to be anything less than what you were supposed to be.”
Harbaugh was supposed to coach. That much was obvious during his playing days. He sat on the sidelines with the Carolina Panthers in 2001 before retiring and setting out on his next career the following season as the Raiders’ quarterbacks coach.
He won a Pioneer Football League title at the University of San Diego in 2005. Five years later, he led Stanford to its first 11-win season in program history and an Orange Bowl title. He took the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl after the 2012 season, and a nine-year run at the University of Michigan, his alma mater, culminated in a national championship in January.
Meek: Jim Harbaugh at Michigan could have ended badly. Instead, he delivered a parade.
“You want to be on Jim’s side,” Riley said. “There’s no doubt about it.”
Passionate, principled, driven and authentically himself — that is the legacy Harbaugh left as a Chargers player.
Now he builds a new one.
(Top illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; photos: Brian Cleary and Tom Hauck / Getty Images)
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