How Jim Harbaugh Saved the San Francisco 49ers
I mean, is this even up for debate? The 49ers are the byproduct of one of the biggest and most high-profile coaching hires of our generation. The Niners are where the Miami Dolphins could potentially be. They're in New Orleans because they put their trust in a man who has proven almost infallibly trustworthy.
Without lionizing the guy, it's clear what he means to the 49ers. In 2011, he presided over one of the biggest turnarounds in the NFL. In 2012, he's led that team right back to the playoffs and straight through the NFC Championship Game toward the mountaintop.
How did Harbaugh reach such lofty heights in only his second NFL season?
That's easy: He's been headed toward that peak for a long time.
This Is Just Who Jim Harbaugh Is
Jim Harbaugh and his brother John didn't just grow up around football; they grew up around football royalty. Their father, Jack, coached under Bo Schembechler, and Jim got to look up to John Elway as his dad coached the defense at Stanford.
Mike McCartney, currently an agent with Priority Sports, grew up with the Harbaugh boys. His dad, Bill McCartney, was an assistant at Michigan with Jack Harbaugh and would eventually go on to become a legend at the University of Colorado. He would also serve in the Eagles' personnel department as John Harbaugh served as special teams coordinator.
Who is most responsible for the 49ers' success?
McCartney tells an anecdote how, each morning, Jack Harbaugh would sit his boys down and tell them to do their best that day. The recurring theme wasn't "ace the test" or "throw touchdowns at practice." No, the message was always, whatever they do, do it to the best of their ability.
The message clearly got through to Jim.
Jim Harbaugh was a standout at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor before transferring to Palo Alto in his junior year. When the time came to pick a college, Jim headed back to Michigan. He grew into his role as starting quarterback and headed to the NFL, where he became one of the Indianapolis Colts' all-time greats.
While he was still playing in the NFL, Jim decided to aid his father, who was trying to turn around a troubled college team. From Jerry Brewer, who covered Jack Harbaugh at Western Kentucky, of The Seattle Times:
But the program didn't die because the coach remained committed, and his sons provided assistance. In 1994, John and Jim hatched a plan to help their father recruit better. Jim, who was still an NFL quarterback, became a volunteer assistant coach...
With improved talent, the father wound up leading the Hilltoppers to seven consecutive winning seasons, including the Division I-AA national title in 2002. Overall, Jack Harbaugh had a 91-68 record in 14 seasons at Western.
Harbaugh would go on to coach Rich Gannon as the Oakland Raiders' QB coach during their Super Bowl run. He would take the lessons he learned at Western Kentucky to turn around the University of San Diego. Then, he took the job at Stanford and turned it into one of the premium positions on the college football landscape.
When the time came to leave Stanford once again, Michigan fans hoped that Harbaugh would come and help them wash off the stink of the Rich Rodriguez era. Another Michigan man, Stephen Ross—owner of the Miami Dolphins—rolled out the red carpet to try to bring Harbaugh to Miami. But we know where he ended up.
Yet as successful as Harbaugh has been and as well as he was raised, he still has some...quirks. He famously wears a Sharpie around his neck to every game. Mike Garafolo of USA Today got to the bottom of it:
Fact is, no one has ever seen him use the marker. At least not that they can remember.
Well, part of the answer is Harbaugh is a stickler for consistency in his wardrobe. He wears khaki pants, a black Niners sweatshirt and a black hat with the team's logo on the front. That's the Harbaugh uniform. He was wearing the same outfit the past two days at his press conference.
This is a man who refers to Facebook and "the Tweeter" (yes, Tweeter) as a waste of time:
Jim Harbaugh, when asked if he's into social media: "No I don't have a tweeter or anything like that."He wasn't kidding.— Rick Reilly (@ReillyRick) January 29, 2013
He doesn't have a ton of time for postgame handshakes, and he tends to bristle at those who would ask him about why he's so bristly. He somehow skirts the line of being a players' coach and an authoritarian. His success breeds trust, and that trust is rewarded.
It is that relationship that endears him to his players. Would he be as loved if he were languishing at the bottom of the NFC West? Probably not. At the very least, however, we know he would be entertaining.
On the sidelines, Harbaugh is far from a calming influence, gesticulating wildly after what he perceives to be terrible calls, and which usually aren’t. He’s also a very ineffective replay challenger, seemingly because he can’t imagine a scenario in which his opinion that his team should get the ball can be overturned by visual evidence. Watch Harbaugh for a full game, and you might get the impression that he’s unhinged, a lunatic who couldn’t hold down a job in most any other profession. With every new piece of evidence, it appears more obvious that this is not an act. He really is a big crazy weirdo.
So we have a man who could, almost easily, be in the same exact boat as Rex Ryan, Jim Schwartz or Dennis Green. He could be all bluster and little muster. Instead, he's steamrolling the rest of the league onward toward Super Bowl Sunday:
After doing basic presser, #49ers' Jim Harbaugh mingled with media amid player interviews. Not seen that in27 other S-Bowls. Real loose.— Bob McGinn (@BobMcGinn) January 30, 2013
Harbaugh's Attitude Is Now the 49ers Way
While at Stanford, Darren Everson of The Wall Street Journal had this to say about Harbaugh: "[I]n the age of 'genius' coaches, Mr. Harbaugh is doing it by scouting hard, recruiting hard, putting miles on the car and coaching up his players until they believe they're good enough."
So maybe it should come as no surprise that Harbaugh has overseen quite a bit of turnover on the 49ers as he found players that fit his—shall we call it, "unique"—persona.
Obviously, Patrick Willis already fits that profile. Harbaugh refers to Willis as a "get-the-job-done guy" (via Dan Hanzus of NFL.com). Willis is almost the antithesis of his counterpart on the Ravens.
Whether you think positively or negatively about Ray Lewis, you've heard his raspy voice and you've seen his squirrelly dance. Willis is in the spotlight as an elite player but seems almost uninterested in anything but playing football.
Even the choice of Colin Kaepernick at quarterback seems (at least in hindsight) to be an extension of that personality type for which Harbaugh is looking. Kaepernick had an Ivy League intellect coming out of high school but turned down more elite schools because he didn't want to saddle his parents with debt. No, he took a scholarship to Nevada and became the ultimate trigger man for Chris Ault's pistol offense.
Yet, while we talk about Kaepernick's athletic legs, his cannon arm or (stupidly) about his tattoos, we seem to forget that much of his success is derived from what's between his ears and what's in his chest.
The diva reputations of guys like Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis seem like things of the past as Harbaugh's paradigm extends to the rest of the 49ers in various ways (via Jeff Legwold of The Denver Post):
Unlike many teams that disembark their plane upon arrival to the Super Bowl city with cameras in hand, none of the 49ers players were seen with any video recorders or cameras.
They quickly made their way to their downtown hotel and Harbaugh said his goal was simply to begin a normal work week Monday with a schedule that will include a weight-lifting session.
The 49ers are who they are because they're all about football. They're not a reflection of their owner; they've become an extension of their head coach as if he sits them down every day before practice and tells them to ignore the outcome and simply do their job—whatever it may be—to the best of their ability.
Gee, wonder where he got that from...
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.
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