SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Jim Harbaugh's office is a bit of a mess. There are boxes on the floor, chairs askew in a small seating area near his desk and a pair of shoes tossed asunder in the haste to make it to practice. Another box sits atop a stack of papers on his desk, competing for space with two computer monitors.
And yeah, it's all a tad symbolic. Harbaugh is a man with a lot going on. Aside from coaching one of the league's most talented teams, being the father to three young children and traveling to Peru this offseason to do missionary work with his three grown kids, Harbaugh is close to becoming one of the most valuable commodities in the NFL.
A great coach on the market.
Harbaugh's decade as a head coach has featured the kind of upward trajectory that few people could have imagined. After three impressive seasons at the University of San Diego, he kick-started a Stanford program that has now gone to four straight major bowl games.
In three years with the 49ers, he has made the Super Bowl once and the NFC Championship Game the other two seasons. Despite that resume, he and the 49ers are at odds about his next contract, and the team at least listened to a trade proposal from Cleveland in the offseason for Harbaugh.
The point is that, as of right now, Harbaugh has tremendous leverage. If he lets his contract run out in 2015, some team will pay handsomely for him. If the 49ers try to trade him after the season, he'll get paid handsomely by the acquiring team. If the 49ers win a Super Bowl this season, San Francisco CEO Jed York will be happy to pay Harbaugh whatever it takes.
With all of that adding further clutter to his busy world, Harbaugh took time to sit down with Bleacher Report.
B/R: You have a number of people on this team who are concerned about money and their contracts to varying degrees. You had (tight end) Vernon (Davis) prior to camp before showing up. You have guard Alex Boone holding out. Colin (Kaepernick) got his deal done during the offseason. And there has obviously been a lot of talk about your contract situation. How do you keep the focus on the team and the upcoming season while dealing with these money issues?
Harbaugh: It's where we are in the life cycle of the season, and it's like what the builder said about the keel of the ship. All focus is on the 2014 season. I signed my 10th contract in the National Football League in 2011, so I understand contracts. I understand how contracts work, and what they are there for. I also know that I work at the pleasure of the San Francisco 49ers organization and at the pleasure of the York Family. And I am paid extremely well—which I am most grateful for, and I am very proud to be part of this organization. For the record, I have never asked to be the highest-paid coach in football. I have never asked to be paid like a Super Bowl-winning coach. I have never asked for more power. Nor has anybody asked for those things on my behalf, which anybody in this organization can attest to, and all the focus will be on the 2014 season and achieving our goals of the team.
B/R: But it has been a topic of conversation for the better part of the past year, and a lot of people around the NFL believe you are willing to bet on yourself and play this situation out a bit.
Harbaugh: I've heard that reported by you and others, I just want to state for the record, and hopefully say just as I said it, that's how I feel. But I don't bet. If I bet on anything, it's for a chocolate milkshake. That's the extent of the stakes I bet on.
|2005||San Diego||NCAA||11-1||Mid-major national champions|
|2006||San Diego||NCAA||11-1||Mid-major national champions|
|2009||Stanford||NCAA||8-5||Lost Sun Bowl|
|2010||Stanford||NCAA||12-1||Won Orange Bowl|
|2011||49ers||NFL||13-3||Lost NFC Championship Game|
|2012||49ers||NFL||11-4-1||Lost Super Bowl|
|2013||49ers||NFL||12-4||Lost NFC Championship Game|
usdtoreros.com, sports-reference.com, pro-football-reference.com
B/R: Is it a milkshake from the Peninsula Creamery?
Harbaugh: That's a darn good milkshake. There's no doubt about that.
B/R: Last year, one of the things you tried to do with Kaepernick in the exhibition season was to keep him from running so that he would develop more as a pocket passer. Do you have similar plans for him this year?
Harbaugh: As it relates to the preseason? Who told you that?
B/R: I don't remember who said it, but that's what I remember hearing.
Harbaugh: No, preseason games we're going to get him in there, get him a taste of the action, get timing and get his senses honed and back in the action, back in the games. The No. 1 rule is that don't get him hurt. But get him back in the action and get his senses fully awakened.
B/R: What is the ceiling for him? People have talked about him in comparison with Steve Young and John Elway because of his vast physical skill.
Harbaugh: What is the ceiling? Why put a limitation on him? It's high. Expectations are high. By his talent, by his execution, by his effort he will be known, as all football players will. He is the highest level in all three of those.
B/R: You talk in almost regal terms when discussing football and football players. You talk about how players "will be known." You talk about the "sound of plastic hitting" and about how the players "wear armor." The phrasing is awesome. The way you talk about the game, it's not just a game. It's as if it's a test of manhood and your qualities as a human being.
Harbaugh: I would agree. It has never been just a game to me, ever.
B/R: You can keep going.
Harbaugh (chuckling): I was done.
B/R: But when you say it's never been just a game, what is it?
Harbaugh: I don't know how to say it. I can never think about it as just a game.
B/R: So when the three hours are done on Sunday and the clock hits zero, it doesn't end.
Harbaugh: I can say there is a letdown when the game is over. There is a great thrill of walking out to practice, of the game, the competition. I thank God for the opportunity to go out to practice and be in the games, but there is letdown when it's over.
B/R: Has it been that way since the first time you put on pads.
Harbaugh: Yep, the Ann Arbor Junior Packers, nineteen hundred and seventy-three. I fell in the love of the game. August, third day of training camp, the first day we put on pads. I made my first tackle and I loved it. I absolutely loved it.
Harbaugh: In junior football, I was a fullback and a linebacker until about the sixth or seventh practice. The best player on our team, David Thayer, was the quarterback and asked to be moved to running back, and I volunteered for quarterback.
B/R: When you talk, you choose your words very carefully. You're constantly thinking about exactly what you want to say. Do you ever let your guard down when talking with reporters about football?
Harbaugh: What do you mean by guard?
B/R: You don't seem to talk off-the-cuff very much.
Harbaugh: I try to speak the truth as I know it and believe it to be.
B/R: Have you always been an agitator, the type of person who knows how to push another person's buttons to get them motivated?
Harbaugh: An agitator?
B/R: Yes, like sand in an oyster. At Stanford, you came out and said that Stanford does not bow down to anyone. You tell players that you have to make practice suck so that the games will be fun, they will be a relief.
Harbaugh: Do I? I love people, I really do. I'm a people person. I think that's a strength of mine. I love being around people, especially in a team setting. I know that all human beings have a great agency for being part of a team. I think I'm especially wired that way and I love being part of something that is working toward a greater goal, and there's no more satisfaction in life than achieving those goals as a team and being a part of that team.
B/R: And raising the level of performance beyond what the talent might allow?
Harbaugh: I have always believed that you win as part of a team effort, and now I know it. I've lived 50 years and learned that if everybody does a little bit, it adds up to a lot. People often think that there's a general who makes all the difference, but I would reject that. It's a team effort. It's the power of the wedge. There are few things more powerful than the wedge. You wedge things together. On my truck, I don't use ropes when I'm carrying things. I use those bungee cords to keep it together and then wedge everything right in there because a wedge is so much stronger than rope could be. It's the power of the wedge. It's the power of a team. And that, I know like my own name.
B/R: Do you have a favorite story about Al Davis?
Harbaugh: There are so many things. Being a good listener and thinking about what somebody is telling him and not having a knee-jerk reaction to what they are saying and then think about what the possibilities are about what they are saying. Some people just hear what someone (such as a teacher) is saying and see to the blackboard. Al saw way beyond that. He was a great listener. He had so many qualities. I admired him a lot and I wanted to please him. One time, we lost two straight games and I was making some copies of a (practice) script and running down the hallway and he was at the door. He said, "How we doing Jim?" I said, "We're doing good, Mr. Davis. How are you doing?" He said, "How the frick do you think I'm doing? We've lost two straight games. Frick." After practice was over, I went back to my computer and I was thinking, "What could I have said? What should I have said?" I thought about it for hours while I was doing my work. So we lost two more games and I was standing at the copier and he came by and said, "How we doing Jim?" I said, "We're hanging in there, Mr. Davis." He said, "That's all we can do, Jim. All we can do is fight for our lives." I think I thought of the right thing to say. I chose my words better.
B/R: "Fight for our lives." That's beautiful.
Harbaugh: Oh, it was never just a game to him.
B/R: Like it's never just a game to you. That's what drives people to greatness.
Harbaugh: Oh, don't put me on that dance floor. Don't put me on the dance floor with Al Davis. I'm not there.
B/R: But you're striving to be there.
Harbaugh: That's a good goal to strive for. If I could be half the coach and football man that Al Davis was.
B/R: Where did you go for your missionary work this offseason?
Harbaugh: I went to Peru. I was there for seven or eight days. I didn't go anywhere after that. I just stayed at home and coached my tail off. I was teaching my (five-year-old) daughter (Addie) to ride a bicycle without training wheels and did a good job of teaching my three-year-old to swim. Katie is a swimmer now. Jack, my son, did a lot of work hitting off the tee. He's almost two.
B/R: He's not even two and you have him hitting off the tee?
Harbaugh (laughing): That's right. That's right, he's hitting off a tee. He's exceeding expectations. He's a one-hand swinger right now. We're not working the top hand just yet, he likes just one. As long as he's getting the swinging action.
B/R: How many times have you been to Peru now?
Harbaugh: It has been six or seven times now.
B/R: Missionary work all the time.
Harbaugh: This year, Dave Feldman, a good friend of mine who I went to high school with and works here in the Bay Area, brought a camera crew down. So there's some actual footage and people can look at it and share it…every year is great, a wonderful experience. It gets better every year. This year, my older kids, Jay, Jimmy and Grace, went with me. We had a great time. I was really proud of them. They worked hard and had compassion. It was great to see in them.
B/R: Who got you interested in that?
Harbaugh: My buddy John Denniston. He's my daughter Addie's godfather, a good friend of mine. I just asked him one time, "What are you doing this summer?" He said he was going down to Peru (to) do missionary work at a Catholic Church in Peru. I said, "Tell me about that?" Next thing I know I'm going. John went to Michigan. I didn't know him then, he's a couple of years older than me. But when we came up to Stanford, he was at the press conference with another friend of mine. We got to talking and found out he lived in the area. He offered to let us stay in his guest house while we were looking for a place. We stayed there for four or five months and became really close friends. He's a venture capitalist who has done really well and has a house in Atherton, so the guest house was really nice. But he has gone from venture capital to working for the church.
B/R: He's obviously had the financial freedom to make that conversion.
Harbaugh: As my wife's father, Merle Feuerborn, would say, "No one pays better interest than the Lord. Nobody."
Jason Cole covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. He has covered the league since 1992, winning numerous awards for his work, particularly for investigative stories on Reggie Bush and on financial crime against athletes.