By: David Lombardi, ESPN Staff Writer
STANFORD, Calif. — Tsuyoshi Kawata stood outside Jim Harbaugh’s office, took a deep breath, knocked on the door, and entered.
It was the spring of 2007, and Kawata was visiting the Bay Area from his native Japan. A lifelong football fan, he stopped in on a Stanford spring practice at the invitation of a friend. He had never met Harbaugh, who was preparing for his first season as the Cardinal’s head coach, though he was familiar with him from his playing days as an NFL quarterback. Kawata could barely speak English, but he was looking for an entry point into coaching in the United States.
Kawata had thought about what he was going to say to Harbaugh before he entered his office. He told Harbaugh that he was a major influence in his football education, and that he remembered him as “Captain Comeback” from watching his games in Japan on grainy television broadcasts.
“I told him that story to make his mood better,” Kawata said with a laugh.
“Do you love football?” Harbaugh asked.
“Yes, Coach, absolutely,” Kawata replied.
“Come and join us,” Harbaugh said.
And so, with an invitation to a spring practice and a knock on Harbaugh’s door, Kawata embarked on his college-football-coaching odyssey. He’s one of only three members from Harbaugh’s original staff still at Stanford, alongside defensive coordinator Lance Anderson and current head coach David Shaw, who remembers when he first saw “TK” on the practice field.
Tsuyoshi Kawata has been on Stanford’s staff since 2007, when he introduced himself to Jim Harbaugh and was offered a chance to work with the Cardinal.
“It was one of those deals where, all of a sudden, Jim hired him and didn’t tell anybody,” said Shaw, who was Stanford’s offensive coordinator at the time. “So [Kawata] walked out onto the field, and it was like, ‘Who is this guy? He’s on the field? He’s got a clipboard?'”
In 2011, Harbaugh left to become head coach of the San Francisco 49ers and was succeeded by Shaw, who promoted Kawata from volunteer assistant to the role of paid full-time offensive assistant. It was the culmination of a dream for Kawata. In Japan, he played as a 6-foot, 230-pound offensive lineman, first in college at Josai University and then for the OBIC Seagulls of the Japanese X-League.
“When I first showed up to play football, I thought I was going to play quarterback,” Kawata said. “But I’m a big guy in Japan. So they said, ‘No, you’re playing offensive line.'”
After his playing days finished in 2004, Kawata became the Seagulls’ offensive coordinator. An American, Robert Prince, was also on the Seagulls’ staff. When Prince moved on to become an offensive assistant with the Atlanta Falcons, Kawata finally had a connection in American coaching circles. He jumped at a chance to check out Falcons’ organized team activities in 2006, when he met Atlanta’s line coach Chris Dalman, a former offensive lineman at Stanford and with the San Francisco 49ers.