Jim Harbaugh is one of the best football coaches at any level in the country. Few would argue differently. In fact, a few may even argue that he is one of the top coaches at any level in any sport. He has firmly placed his imprint on not only the San Francisco 49ers, but the entire Niners fan base as well. Truth be told, he's turning into a major icon in the Bay Area sporting landscape.
But what else is Harbaugh turning into? We already know what he is, to a certain extent. He's a brilliant strategist and an incredible teacher, but he's also a great motivator and he seems to instill much of that motivation with a personality that is intense, but is also quick to take affront at the slightest quip. Harbaugh likes to create enemies and issues to use as fodder for his team. It works and his ability to motivate a team and create a cohesive unit focused on winning is unparalleled in the NFL, but sometimes he borders on absurdity.
Harbaugh's history is one that suggests he likes to play the victim card fast and loose. His run-ins with Mike Ditka during his playing days in Chicago are well-documented. He also had a flareup with Dave Wannstedt after he ousted Harbaugh from Chicago following the 1993 season. I don't doubt that Harbaugh took extra pleasure in crushing the trachea of Wannstedt's defense last week against the Bills.
After former Bills quarterback, Jim Kelly, publicly questioned Harbaugh's toughness during a game broadcast in 1997, Harbaugh responded by punching Kelly in the head in the middle of a hotel lobby, breaking his hand in the process. We all know about his confrontation with Jim Schwartz last year and the conspiracy theories about what motivated it.
Harbaugh went for a 4th and three conversion against Tampa Bay last year with a 42-point lead, just a few minutes left in the game and a field goal well within reach for who knows what reason. He went for a two-point conversion against USC while at Stanford, despite being up by a score of 55-21 with less than a minute left. Harbaugh had some vague, ambiguous problem with Pete Carroll, or perhaps just USC in general, and got revenge for whatever perceived crime had been committed against him.
And now we have Harbaugh jumping to the defense of Justin Smith in response to New York Giants offensive coordinator, Kevin Gilbride. Gilbride openly accused Smith of holding on every play and "getting away with murder", which isn't a classy thing to say by any means.
But Harbaugh's response was typical. Here are some of the adjectives he used to describe Gilbride's accusations: outrageous, incendiary, absurd, irrational. He also accused the Giants' staff of trying to influence officiating in the game this Sunday.
The legend of Jim Harbaugh is growing, but it is growing on the backs of episodes where he's basically flipped out and responded to a proverbial punch in the nose with a sledgehammer to the parietal bone. The Harbaugh legend is equally borne on the backs of legitimate, almost unmatched coaching acumen, but that is edging dangerously close to taking a backseat to his extra-curricular antics, gesticulations and press releases.
Now, I understand Harbaugh jumping to the defense of Smith and it's one of the traits that endears him to his players. But as inappropriate as Gilbride's comments were, Harbaugh simply is not one to let things go. Rather than take the high road, Harbaugh jumped into the gutter bringing a fully-automatic Daewoo USAS-12 shotgun to a knife fight, as has been his modus operandi for his entire life. It's what makes him a coach that players want to move mountains for, but it could be his eventual downfall as well.
Harbaugh's rabid enthusiasm is really something to behold. Every bad call sends him into fits reminiscent of an electro-shock patient and every great play has him fired up in a manner more befitting a fan celebrating in the upper reaches of Candlestick's section 57 because he managed to stash an entire case of beer on his body without getting caught by security on the way in. This is not an act either. This is not something that I expect Harbaugh to simply turn off at some point, and if he does turn it off he'll probably retire.
But when will this very sincere act wear thin? Or will it? Aside from rebuilding years in his first season at both the University of San Diego and Stanford, Harbaugh has never been a losing coach and has never faced the sort of scrutiny and criticism that comes with losing. He has as a player and it earned him a reputation as a hothead. A competitive, team-first one, but a hothead nonetheless.
And Harbaugh will go through a bad year at some point. Every coach does. I don't expect the team to stop buying into his program if they start losing but perhaps the team simply underperforms one year, or maybe even for two or three. Or injuries could decimate the team.
What will Harbaugh be like then? How ugly will things turn with a Harbaugh perpetually looking for some slight to turn into motivation when there will be a whole slew of outright insults to choose from? Or perhaps more ominously (and for another article), when will the grab for unchecked power within the organization happen if his current success continues for several more years?
I don't expect the 49ers to suddenly go in the tank anytime in the near future. They have a solid core of young players and veterans under contract, they have an excellent coaching staff and a front office that is finally capable of producing a winning football team.
But things happen. What would this season be like right now if the Niners were 1-4 instead of 4-1? We've seen Harbaugh while experiencing success as a coach, but I'm not sure anyone wants to see what he morphs into when the going gets weird. Everything is going right for the Niners right now and Harbaugh is on the verge of a psychotic meltdown half the time and is quick to overreact to any slight from the media or elsewhere the other half.
Four or five years down the road what 49ers fans love about Harbaugh now will have grown ordinary unless he has a couple of Super Bowl titles under his belt. Niners fans are a jaded bunch and they'll mostly all tell you that. It will be even more pronounced if the Giants win another World Series title this year. If or when the fan base becomes jaded with the whole Harbaugh mystique, one bad season is all it will take to fundamentally alter the nature of his relationship with the fans and the media.
One or two Super Bowl titles may not even be enough to insulate him from virtually any criticism whatsoever, in the same vein as Bill Walsh. Don't forget that Walsh had issues with ownership following a poor season in 1987 and was almost fired.
Harbaugh and the 49ers have the potential to create something really beautiful in the Bay Area, perhaps even begin another dynasty that lasts for a decade or more. But what makes Harbaugh so intense and so successful also brings the potential for some serious ugliness when or if things go south on the franchise.