Meeting Jim Harbaugh this summer at training camp, as well as questioning him a couple of times during his weekly meetings with the media, what stands out most about him is his emphasis on team.
The team comes first. In everything. It’s not about stars and stats but about W's, and the fact that he brings practice squad members along for road games indicates that he feels everyone involved in the endeavor deserves credit.
And that right there gives insight into the thinking of a 47-year-old first-year NFL coach.
At 9-1, the 49ers have been the surprise of the 2011 NFL season. The Thanksgiving Day game against the Ravens, coached by brother John, will be historical because it is the first time brothers have been head coaches in the same game.
Here are five comments made to the media, and from that, we learn more about the vision that accounts for the Niners’ success.
One thing about Jim is that he came in knowing that pro players are different than college kids. Bo Schembechler, Harbaugh’s coach at Michigan, made a telling point to his players, namely that at the college level is the last time you’ll play in a team-first environment.
For many, the game ends there. But if it continues in the pros, players play for a contract, not for a team.
Harbaugh has carried that over to the 49ers. First, he almost bows in awe to their commitment. Many comments during the year have been about the 49ers working hard, being good in practice and games, and they deserve all the credit. He even used the same words complimenting the Ravens during Monday’s press conference
Q: What kind of impressions did you get from watching [John]? You’ve been to a couple Ravens games the last couple years and been on the sideline. What did you take from those games?
“Just how good he was,” Jim said. “How good their organization was. How good their players were. What a strong, mighty team they had. Always impressed.”
[Note: All quotes courtesy of the 49ers PR Department.]
As Jim has said, coaches are advisers. Players block and tackle. All the credit goes to them. And for a team that was sort of beat down by the insistence and stubbornness of Mike Singletary, Jim Harbaugh, I believe, soothed the team’s feelings and got them believing in themselves.
The constant referencing to strong men, big men, is Harbaugh’s way of honoring the players, and they in turn honor him by playing up to their talent.
In his meetings with the local media, both at the team facility and even on the radio, there are times when it’s hard to tell whether Harbaugh is in pain or just genuinely doesn’t enjoy the back-and-forth.
In the Monday press conference, Jim made reference to John, the older brother, “knocking down hurdles” for his younger brother. A reporter came back to that topic.
Q: You said John has kept knocking down doors for you or something…
“Hurdles is what I said,” corrected Jim. Note the stern answer. Specific and exact. Correcting.
During a conference call earlier in the day, John Harbaugh told the 49er writers that Jim’s dealings might be in part tongue-in-cheek.with the media came up, which in turn got relayed back to the 49er coach.
Q: John said about your personality basically, you’re a real nice guy and you like to have fun, and you basically lead us on, which of course is true. In other words, you play with us. Sort of when we ask a question or people challenge you. That was his thought.
“Hmm,” mumbled Jim. The room broke into laughter.
“Everybody always laughs at me when I’m really not trying to be funny. I just try to answer the questions.”
Note that Jim Harbaugh never broke character. Never came close.
The brother vs. brother thing is secondary.
Q: Do you think the NFL has put you at a disadvantage because of the whole Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh thing on Thanksgiving?
“I definitely think it was very considerate of the NFL to reunite the brothers on Thanksgiving. I think that’s going to be very difficult for our team. There’s no question that we drew the short end of the straw on this one.”
Short straw? In Jim’s eyes, yes. They are the first team ever to fly coast-to-coast for a Thanksgiving game.
It’s all about competing for Jim, and he doesn’t want to waver at all from that focus. Using the travel time and wear-and-tear as a motivating force, it’s just another Harbaugh tool to motivate his team and squeeze out a win.
Vic Fangio worked for John Harbaugh in Baltimore for two years. He then worked for Jim Harbaugh at Stanford, and moved up as defensive coordinator with the 49ers. He’s been around both brothers. Here’s his perspective.
Q: What’s the biggest difference between John and Jim? Everybody assumes they’re so similar because they come from, like Jim even says, they come from the same cloth, the same dad, same coaching background, what’s the biggest difference in their coaching?
“Well I’m probably the person that has the most perspective on that because I was with John his first two years in Baltimore and worked closely with him there in his first head coaching job,” Fangio said.
“And obviously been with Jim last year at Stanford and the transition that coming over to here and everything that’s involved with that. And I would say about 30 percent of them is similar, being that they’re from the same family, same parents and all that. But 70 percent of them are very different. They’re two very different individuals, two very different, in most cases.”
John is more relaxed; Jim is tight and focused. After the Detroit game in which Lions coach Jim Schwartz almost tussled with Jim, John Harbaugh was asked about fighting the younger Harbaugh. John Harbaugh laughed it off but he got one message across, you don’t want to do that. Jim doesn’ t like to lose.
John Harbaugh said that with a laugh. Jim doesn’t laugh all that much.
OK, let’s step back. Jack Harbaugh and his wife Jackie will be at the stadium prior to the game, and then they’ll leave to watch the game in private. It’s the first game with teams coached by brothers. To make it even more significant, Jack and Jackie will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary the next day, the 25th.
Q: This is a little sentimental, too, but your parents are going to reach their 50th anniversary. That’s a number that a lot of couples strive for, it’s hard to do in this day and age. That’s falling on Friday. Is that pretty special to you this week, too, or can you think about that after Thursday?
“Really proud of that,” Jim said. “Really proud that my parents will be having their 50th year, celebrating their 50th year of marriage. What kid could possibly have it better than having two parents that love each other and provided the kind of example that they have? It’ll be a great celebration for them.”
Q: Will you be able to stay in Baltimore and celebrate with the family?
“I’m planning on flying back with the team.”
Think about that. The Niners won’t play for 10 days, and it’s a unique if once-in-a-lifetime event for his parents, one that one would assume could easily be worked into the schedule. A day off after a big game to celebrate with the family? Of course. Who wouldn’t? Jim, that’s who.
Another game looms on the horizon.