SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Jim Harbaugh learned the power of spinning a situation at an early age.
When he was a little kid, the family's motto was "Who's got it better than us?" His dad, Jack, would ask the question and Jim, his brother John and sister Joani would shout in unison, "Nobody!"
At the time they lived in a tiny two bedroom-house in Iowa City, where Jack was an assistant coach at University of Iowa. Sometimes they had a car. If not, they were walking -- what a terrific opportunity to work on basketball dribbling skills! Jack convinced the boys how great it was that they could bunk together in a tiny bedroom and talk philosophy and share each other's dreams.
"Who could possibly have it better than you two guys?" Jack would ask.
"Then as you get older you realize that people do have it better than you," said Harbaugh, who went back to look at the tiny house on a scouting trip. "That was the smallest house I'd ever seen."
But the message was received, processed and believed.
"The message there was not having things handed to you, that things that don't come easy are really a blessing," Harbaugh said. "If it's harder it makes you better in the long run. That's what my dad was selling."
Fast-forward 40 years from the tiny house to the 49ers' training facility where Harbaugh was speaking on Monday. His 49ers team had just returned from a bonding and bountiful 10-day road trip. The 49ers won two road games -- one in Cincinnati and another, more surprising one, on Sunday in Philadelphia. In between they stayed in Youngstown, Ohio -- like a stay-away camp for big boys.
Who could possibly have it better than those 49ers guys?
Nobody right now. Because whatever Jack Harbaugh's youngest son is selling, the 49ers are buying.
The team is 3-1 a quarter through the season with an early lead in the very forgiving NFC West and a clear shot at the division title. The 49ers have been 3-1 before -- under Mike Singletary in 2009. But this seems different. It isn't just coming back from a 20-point deficit in a hostile environment. It's the feeling involved.
"Just top to bottom, collectively," Alex Smith said. "It's a completely different mindset, a different attitude."
No player on the 49ers is a better candidate for Jack Harbaugh's the-greatness-of-overcoming-hardships campaign than Smith. He's been battered and belittled. He's been termed a bust. He's been urged -- at times commanded -- to leave town.
Yet he decided to stay with the 49ers for a sixth season, to see what it would be like to have the benefit of -- finally -- an offensive-minded head coach who actually understands quarterbacks.
It's paying off in the early going. On Sunday against the Eagles, Smith orchestrated a comeback, passing for 201 yards and two touchdowns. It was easily his most impressive game as a 49er -- an echo of a long-ago flash of promise when a 22-year-old Smith brought his team back on a blustery December night in Seattle.
He's 27 now and is honing one of the qualities that any successful athlete needs: resiliency.
"I think resiliency is a very important thing to have," Harbaugh said. "It's kind of like the guy in the movies who -- no matter what you do to him, blow him up, shoot him, knife him -- you can't kill him. And he keeps coming back."
That's Smith. He's been the 49ers quarterback for six forgettable years. But the first quarter of this, his seventh season, has been his best, least self-destructive stretch. Harbaugh's approach has been cautious, conservative, almost as though he's been protecting Smith, letting him gain some self-confidence and success in small doses.
But down by 20 early in the second half against the Eagles, Harbaugh needed Smith to tap into that growing inner fortitude and make some plays. And Smith did.
"It was a big step," Smith said. "The attitude at halftime, there wasn't any panic or letdown. It was really kind of just focusing on the next play."
The 24-23 victory was a big moment for rookie coach Harbaugh, possibly a signature game though we'll only know that in retrospect. But it did remind him of another big win, a program-turning moment in 2007 when Stanford beat USC. By 24-23.
"There was a moment where that ballgame reminded me personally of the 2007 game," Harbaugh said. "And the score was identical."
There have been few memorable games in recent years for the 49ers. Nothing has come easily. Which makes any taste of success that much more meaningful. The current mood might not last, the 49ers might have more struggles ahead. But as the Harbaugh family philosophy dictates, that's not a bad thing.
In fact, Harbaugh started to get nervous on Monday as the questioning became more and more positive.
"I'm starting to get a feeling there's too many nice things coming our way here," he said. "My coach in college said, 'When people start talking nice about you, kick them in the shins.' So let's stop. You feel exposed when people start saying flower things."
Harbaugh is determined to spin his team's fate as difficult and challenging.
"I told them the other day they're good," Harbaugh said. "But the longer it takes them to figure it out the better we'll all be. When people start thinking they've arrived they stop doing the things that got them there."
Who's got it better than the 49ers?
In truth, probably a lot of teams. But for the first time in a long time, the 49ers believe they've got it pretty good.