Year 1 under Harbaugh provided inspiring victories over USC and Cal, three more wins than 2006 and a tie for seventh place in the Pacific-10 Conference. (Stanford was an overwhelming pick to finish last.)
But Harbaugh knows there's a lot of work left to achieve his ultimate objective of winning "multiple Pac-10 championships."
Sure, the Cardinal won four games this season and could have won two more (Texas Christian and Notre Dame). But that is hardly breaking new ground on the Farm. Since 1990, Stanford has won at least four games in every season but four.
The Cardinal's mission now is to make the leap into the upper half of the conference a place it has not been since 2001, the last time it appeared in a bowl game.
Harbaugh said it will take "continuous effort on all fronts" to take the next step. He cited recruiting, conditioning and the rehabilitation of his injured players as important factors.
"Any time you set goals, you chase perfection," Harbaugh said. "Perfection is so hard to get, but somewhere along the way you achieve excellence."
Stanford (4-8, 3-6 Pac-10) didn't achieve excellence this season, but it broke down a few barriers. The Cardinal's 24-23 upset of then-No. 2 USC in early October remains the Trojans' only home loss since 2001.
Saturday, Stanford ended five years of frustration against Cal, closing Harbaugh's first season with a 20-13 victory.
Maybe the Cardinal would have won more had it not been ravaged by injuries. Stanford lost its starting fullback in training camp, one of its top running backs in Week 2 and its best offensive lineman in Week 3. By the end of October, the Cardinal was down to its fifth-string running back.
But Harbaugh wouldn't allow his players to quit. He vowed to attack his job with "enthusiasm unknown to mankind," and the positive energy rubbed off on a team in dire need of a boost after going 1-11 in 2006.
"As far as the attitude, it's 100 percent different," senior quarterback T.C. Ostrander said in a jubilant locker room Saturday night. "We have a lot of talent coming back, and I'm expecting big things."
Ostrander easily could have thrown a wrench into Harbaugh's makeover. But the quarterback said all the right things after unusual circumstances cost him his job. (Ostrander suffered a seizure at a restaurant Sept.30, and six days later Tavita Pritchard led Stanford past USC.)
Harbaugh commended Ostrander on Sunday, saying it wasn't easy for him but he "continued to work and was everything you would expect a captain to be."
Pritchard started seven of the final eight games Ostrander started Saturday but will have to compete for the job next season.
"He would have a leg up with the experience," Harbaugh said. "But it certainly won't be set in stone. We've got some guys who can push him. That makes each of them better."
The quarterbacks won't have to wait long to start competing. Harbaugh plans to split spring practice into two phases, the first of which will begin the third week of February.
"The philosophy is to have more of a pro-minicamp-type of offseason," said Harbaugh, who played quarterback in the NFL for 15 seasons.
The Cardinal probably won't be at full strength for spring ball. Harbaugh noted that several players will undergo surgery in the next few weeks, including fullback Owen Marecic (shoulder), right tackle Chris Marinelli (shoulder), tight end Jim Dray (knee) and safety Bo McNally (hand).
Left tackle Allen Smith (knee, rotator cuff) might not be back until summer, Harbaugh said.
The good news for Cardinal fans is that Smith will be back. He and right guard Alex Fletcher are pro prospects, but Harbaugh said both have told him they will return for their senior seasons.
They'd better get used to packing. Four of Stanford's first five games next season are on the road, starting with the opener at Arizona State on Sept. 6.
The Cardinal started building momentum toward 2008 on Saturday, beating its rival before the first near-sellout in the two-year history of Stanford's remodeled stadium.
"I had a great time," Harbaugh said. "We don't have a big student body here, but they were a real presence, not only this game but all season. The postgame in the locker room was the great thrill of victory. It's the kind of thing that young people like our players dream about. It became a reality for them they did it."