One year removed from the Super Bowl, Jim Harbaugh is channeling Sun Tzu, Churchill, Schembechler, Ditka and Eddie Bauer in pursuit of football redemption (and revenge against a certain crunchy coach to the north). If it seems like the Niners' field general is trying to be a jerk along the way—he's not. He's just trying to win
This is an article from the Dec. 9, 2013 issue
THE HERO of whom Jim Harbaugh speaks this afternoon is not a coach nor a general nor a statesman. It is not Winston Churchill, whose framed picture hangs behind his desk, or the San Francisco Batkid, the subject of his props earlier in the week. Harbaugh is talking about Father Joseph Uhen, a rangy and relentlessly upbeat Notre Dame graduate who has spent the last 20 years as pastor of the parish of Santisimo Sacramento in the northern Peruvian city of Piura. There, in outlying villages without sewers or running water, Uhen has built 28 chapels, and he ministers to some 40,000 faithful.
"He's an amazing, holy person," says Harbaugh, a devout Catholic who for the last five years has traveled to Piura in the off-season. Harbaugh typically spends a week (a veritable sabbatical by NFL coach standards) doing the mission's work—delivering food to the needy, helping out at an orphanage or building bamboo houses.
Padre José, as Uhen is known by his flock, has seen Harbaugh literally give villagers the shirt (and hoodie) off his back. He has a picture of the coach walking out of a prison in his stocking feet; Harbaugh had befriended an inmate and given the man his shoes. Uhen recalls delivering food to a house where another old man lay on the dirt floor, near death. Harbaugh gently picked him up and carried him to a car. The man's name was Maximo. They took Maximo to a hospice, where he died. A year later.
Harbaugh and Padre José were once working in a field with an agricultural expert, a Peruvian who, like Uhen, had spent time at Notre Dame and was vocal about his allegiance to the Irish. After a while the fellow asked Harbaugh if he, too, were a Notre Dame fan.
"Actually," replied Harbaugh, who as Michigan's starting quarterback in the mid-'80s went 2--0 against the Irish, "I'm in the Notre- Dame-ass-kicking business."
Every year Harbaugh is startled anew by the abject poverty in Piura. Every year he is inspired anew—"transformed," he says—by the joy and generosity of the locals, in the face of that poverty. "Something I learned down there," he says. "They believe it's a sin to give in to discouragement, to give up hope."
FOR A long time this season it was easy for 49ers fans to have hope. After winning four straight, the team flew to London, where it conducted a business-like vivisection of the Jaguars. Harbaugh, a history buff and Churchill admirer, made time before the game to visit the Imperial War Museum, and he took the tour of Churchill's wartime bunker. He comes alive recalling the exhibit: "It takes you through the stages of his life, from his time [as a newspaper correspondent] in the Boer War, to his time in the wilderness, out of government"—after World War I—"to his time as prime minister during the Second World War." His finest hour.
How might football historians divvy up the stages of Harbaugh's life? According to his father, as a boy Jim was a chronic daydreamer. Quarterbacking an imaginary team in the basement, the kid would also provide his own TV play-by-play, intoning into his fist-microphone: "Jim Harbaugh is having a great day today."
Lightly recruited out of high school, Jim accepted a scholarship to Michigan, where his father, Jack, had spent seven years on Bo Schembechler's staff in the 1970s. Every day on his way to practice Jim walked past a sign in the Wolverines' locker room reading:
WHAT YOU CAN VIVIDLY IMAGINE,
AND ENTHUSIASTICALLY ACT UPON
WILL INEVITABLY COME TO BE
Just not right away. Before blossoming into perhaps the best passing quarterback ever to play for Schembechler, Harbaugh was briefly dismissed from the team by his famously choleric coach. Twice. It took him four NFL seasons to become a full-time starter, nine to get to the Pro Bowl. He endured two losing seasons at Stanford before coaching the Cardinal to a bowl game in 2009. He's now happily married to the former Sarah Feuerborn, whom he met at a P.F. Chang's in Las Vegas seven years ago, not long after divorcing his first wife, Miah. In life's major undertakings, Harbaugh—like most of us—has seldom nailed it on the first try. Until he went to work for the 49ers.
As an NFL coach he's been an overnight success. In his 2011 debut season, Harbaugh inherited a San Francisco team that had lost 10 games the previous year. He took the Niners to the NFC title game. A year later they were in Super Bowl XLVII. In the blackout-marred, Ray Lewis--centric Harbowl, brother John's Ravens beat Jim's 49ers 34--31.
Three weeks ago, on Nov. 17, the Niners lost in the same building by the same margin, 23--20, to the Saints. The box scores for those games reveal a startling regression: A Niners offense that piled up 468 yards in the Super Bowl eked out 196 against New Orleans. Colin Kaepernick, so dynamic and dangerous last season, looked frustrated and tentative against the Saints, as he had in a 10--9 loss to Carolina a week earlier.
Yes, Kap has lacked receivers who can create separation from cornerbacks. Yes, his line has let him down at times, as have his coaches, whose play-calling has sometimes lacked ... inspiration. He's running far less read-option this season, further limiting his effectiveness. And he appears to have lost some confidence. Though that's not how Harbaugh saw it.
"He's doing a heck of a job," the coach insisted four days before the Niners righted the ship with a 27--6 pasting of the NFL's Washington, D.C., team on Nov. 25. "I [am] puzzled why people would think that."
Maybe it's because the 49ers rank 31st in passing, averaging 179 yards per game; or because Kaepernick's quarterback rating in the team's four losses is a dismal 45.9. Harbaugh isn't puzzled. He's protecting his young quarterback. He's fighting a rearguard action against discouragement.
Both Harbaugh brothers now find themselves afflicted with Super Bowl hangovers. John's has been more severe; the defending champion Ravens are scuffling around .500. The Niners, at 8--4, were 2½ games behind Seattle in the stacked NFC West before Monday night's Saints-Seahawks game, unfamiliar territory for the NFL's most precocious coach. To get back to the Super Bowl, San Francisco will likely have to take its act on the road as a wild-card team.
For starters, it would help if the Niners solved the sound and fury of CenturyLink Field, where coach Pete Carroll's Seahawks have lately gotten into the 49ers-ass-kicking business. Seattle has outscored San Francisco 71--16 in the teams' last two meetings. And here they come again: On Dec. 8 the Seahawks visit Candlestick Park to renew the NFL's spiciest intradivision rivalry.
The rancor traces its roots to a last-minute touchdown pass thrown by Stanford's backup quarterback, Tavita Pritchard, that beat USC six years ago. Those dynastic Trojans, coached by Carroll, entered that game as 41-point favorites. Harbaugh, in his first season at Stanford, was handed a 1--11 team. But the programs were on different trajectories.
"If your opponent is temperamental," wrote Sun Tzu in The Art of War, "seek to irritate him." In addition to beating Carroll (which he did two of three times), Harbaugh always seemed intent on vexing his Pac-10 rival. Late in a 55--21 blowout of the Trojans in 2009, Harbaugh dialed up a two-point conversion. The conversion attempt failed; the attempt to annoy succeeded. During their midfield handshake, Carroll—irritated, or perhaps genuinely confused—posed the question that Stanford quickly converted into a slogan to hawk season tickets: "What's your deal?"
By 2011, the two had taken their duel to the NFC West. This past off-season Harbaugh scolded Seattle for its string of PED-related suspensions—five in three years, plus a reported yearlong substance abuse ban for Pro Bowl corner Brandon Browner coming soon. The Niners, he asserted, prefer to "play by the rules" and remain "above reproach." That moral high ground eroded a bit when the Seahawks rolled the Niners 29--3 in Week 2. Harbaugh abandoned that ground entirely a week later, allowing linebacker Aldon Smith to play against the Colts two days after Smith crashed his car and was arrested for DUI.
The two coaches cut strikingly contrasting figures. Carroll is a carefree son of crunchy, New Age, Marin County, Calif. His Seahawks participate in mandatory yoga and voluntary meditation sessions. Harbaugh—he of the metacarpal-crunching postgame handshake that almost led to a fistfight with Lions coach Jim Schwartz—is more overtly alpha: a rugged swain from the Big Ten, the smashmouth-subscribing ideological heir to Bo.
That, at any rate, is the guy he wants you to see as he expectorates tobacco juice on the sideline and pitches the occasional, epic, GIF-ready tantrum. (YouTube: Harbaugh has a fit.) But just as the 49ers' offense is one of brute force spliced with cleverness and creativity, its architect is more than meets the eye. During his 49ers tenure, Harbaugh has invoked authors and sages, from Homer to Hemingway, from Shakespeare to Admiral Bull Halsey to Clark Griswold. "He's tough but not dumb tough," says Brian Jennings, a long snapper whose 13-year run with the Niners ended when Harbaugh cut him in August. "He's methodical, a great technician, just really smart."
People see the histrionics, the gesticulations and the "facial contortions," as Jennings call them, and they arrive at the wrong conclusion, says Willie Taggart, head coach at South Florida. "That's not who he is. He's funny."
Taggart played for Jack Harbaugh at Western Kentucky in the 1980s, then went to Stanford to work for Jim, who was best man at Taggart's wedding. Jim stood beside the groom as the church door opened and the gorgeous bride appeared. "My heart just dropped," recalls Taggart. "Meanwhile, I've got Jim whispering in my ear, 'You sure you want to do this? I've got a car running out back....' "
THAT'S THE Harbaugh I'd come to know, covering him during his playing days. Reporting a feature for SI on Captain Comeback of the Colts in the spring of 1996, I was riding shotgun alongside Harbaugh when he was pulled over for speeding. Noticing the flashing lights in his rearview mirror, he turned to me and said, "This'll be good for your story." It was.
When I called him in 2003 for a quote on the Michigan--Ohio State rivalry, Harbaugh—by that time a sleep-deprived Raiders assistant working 20-hour days and pulling down $50K a year—launched into a spot-on impersonation of longtime Wolverines radio announcer Bob Ufer. As a boy, Harbaugh explained, he would lie in bed, listening to a cassette tape of Ufer's best Big Game calls. His favorite, from 1973, featured an outraged Ufer looking on while Buckeyes players ripped down a sign as they emerged from the tunnel: "They're tearing down Michigan's coveted M Club banner! They will meet a dastardly fate here for that!"
At my prompting, Harbaugh dusted off his Ufer impersonation on the Niners' practice field one day in late October—"They will meet a dastardly fate!"—turning heads and alarming members of his media relations staff.
It was good to see him in this mode. Since becoming an NFL head coach, Harbaugh has walled off that side of himself when dealing with the public. His demeanor during press conferences is often defensive, adversarial. The consensus among the team's beat writers is that while he can still be prickly, Harbaugh has loosened up a bit since his first season. So stingy was he with his words back then—so brief, vague and unhelpful in his replies—that beat writer Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle once turned off his recorder during a one-on-one to ask the coach, "Is something wrong?"
"I'm not trying to be a jerk," Harbaugh explained to me. "It's just that I'm being serious about winning, you know?"
More Sun Tzu: "Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night." Two major influences on Harbaugh were Schembechler and the late Raiders owner Al Davis, both of whose attitudes toward a free press were aligned with those of the Kremlin. So forgive Harbaugh if he comes across as a bit of a misanthrope at some of his press conferences. He's just trying to be impenetrable.
He's also contrary for the sake of being contrary—to keep himself amused, and others off balance. Every other Tuesday he calls into the Murph and Mac radio show on KNBR-AM in San Francisco. There he is, by turns, profound (running back Frank Gore is "a mystical type of guy ... he sees more than most of us do"), droll ("We're gonna head down to Buckingham Palace, mess with the guards a little," he reported from London) and feisty, such as when he questions the vocabulary of his hosts.
"I think he sees everything in his life is a competition to be won," asserts Brian Murphy (d/b/a Murph), one of the KNBR hosts. "Even a biweekly radio show is a chance to assess the opponent, to bait him, even defeat him."
"Quick question about the khakis," I said to Harbaugh, addressing his trademark trousers as he strode to practice one afternoon in late October. "Do you buy them an inch or two bigger in the waist to make room for the tucked-in sweatshirt?"
I was just trying to get him talking. He'd already informed me, with a smile, that he wasn't inclined to sit down and be interviewed at length for this story; he preferred that the focus be on what his hidebound college coach would've referred to as "the team, the team, the team." Now he fixed me with that glare for a couple seconds—Oh, great, I've pissed him off—then burst out laughing. Relieved, I laughed along, only realizing afterward that he never did answer my question.
WHAT DO you like about football?"
It was a Wed-nesday afternoon during the 49ers' October bye week, and Harbaugh was addressing a group of 50 or so youth football players as part of a Visa commercial.
An 85-pound warrior piped up: "You can be aggressive."
"YOU CAN BE AGGRESSIVE!" repeated Harbaugh. "The body, believe it or not, thrives on contact—on collisions," he said. "If a car gets in a collision, what happens? It's broke, right? Takes thousands of dollars to repair. But the human body callouses up; it gets stronger."
A few of the moms in the bleachers looked a bit uncertain. Somewhere, Schembechler was smiling.
Before the kids took the field Harbaugh issued this request: "I'm going to ask everyone to tuck in their shirts. See how I have mine, here—tucked in, pants pulled up nice and high?"
Harbaugh also implored the campers to notice "how nice the grass is. It's like a pool table out there: no holes, just perfect grass. It's like a putting green. So when you're running around, feel how good it is. Say to yourself, This is where the pros practice."
Whether or not his pupils realized their good fortune, it was clear on this sun-kissed afternoon that Harbaugh appreciated his. And sure enough, there was the coach at Candlestick, 11 days later, throwing passes, then running routes an hour before kickoff against the Panthers.
He'll be 50 later this month, 13 seasons removed from playing his last NFL game. Yet Harbaugh can't help but regularly jump into drills. What does that tell us about him, other than that throwing a ball around calms his pregame nerves?
"He's still got the mind-set of a player," says 49ers linebacker Dan Skuta. "He was telling us that he still dreams about playing, still thinks of himself as a part of the team."
It's not surprising that the quarterback who absorbed so much verbal abuse from Mike Ditka would dispense constructive criticism in more measured tones. Harbaugh, in short, is not an ass----. "He's definitely not a screamer," says wideout Anquan Boldin. "He's usually calm when he talks to guys. He's more of a teacher."
A teacher who sorely misses his days in the arena. "That's the cool thing about Harbaugh," says right guard Alex Boone. "He's an emotional guy, and he still thinks like a football player. He's not afraid to get a little down and dirty."
That's literally true. When a sideline shoving match erupted between the Niners and the Titans on Oct. 20, Harbaugh waded in and got stepped on by one or more 300-pounders in the process. "It was good to be in the fray," the coach recounted on KNBR. "Felt good to get cleated again."
And it's figuratively true. Harbaugh inserted himself into an imbroglio after the 49ers' opener against the Packers. Left tackle Joe Staley had taken umbrage when Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews clobbered Kaepernick out-of-bounds. In the ensuing skirmish, Matthews slapped Staley's helmet with an open hand—an act for which Harbaugh ridiculed him the next day, for being a faux tough guy because he'd slapped Staley, rather than "coming with some knuckles."
If anything, the slap proved that Matthews has a functioning brain: Punching someone's helmet hurts your knuckles. But the larger point is that Harbaugh verbally targeted an opposing player. That's rare in the NFL these days and considered a tad unseemly. But Harbaugh, who refers to his players as "teammates," sees himself as a fellow warrior who just so happens to be the head coach.
Just as Harbaugh refused to blame teammates when he was a player—he was sacked 43 times in 1993, second most of any Bears QB ever, but never pointed a finger at their porous offensive line—he will never concede that any of his 49ers has ever has stunk up the joint. Before the team traded disappointing wide receiver A.J. Jenkins, Harbaugh often defended the 2012 first-round pick. Those who questioned his talent, Harbaugh insisted, were making themselves look "clueless." He continued to advocate for Jenkins, right up until the moment the team unloaded him.
Likewise, he could never abide hearing Alex Smith described as a "caretaker quarterback" when the QB was with San Francisco. That characterization, the coach insisted, shortchanged Smith, who was resurrected and then rejected by Harbaugh, and whose name one heard more and more frequently on Bay Area sports-talk radio as inconstant Niners fans grew discouraged and lost hope.
MICHAEL CRABTREE, it would appear, has "calloused up." That was by far the most encouraging take-away from the Niners' 23--13 win over the Rams on Sunday. The wide receiver tore his right Achilles tendon last May. His two receptions in his first game back included a 60-yard catch-and-run, and his mere presence on the field—he played 38 snaps—created space for Vernon Davis and Boldin, both of whom had big days.
Those were the 5--7 Rams. Should the Niners continue to lay eggs against elite defenses, they'll need to take on the identity of their coach in the twilight of his playing days. They'll win low-scoring games. They'll scrap.
Harbaugh was traded from the Ravens to the Chargers in 1999. "We brought him in because we thought he'd be a positive influence on Ryan Leaf," recalls Geep Chryst, who was Harbaugh's QB coach with the Chargers, and who now coaches the same position for the Niners. "What we found out was: You are who you are."
Harbaugh, they found out, was a tough, resourceful, wily gamer whose body was breaking down. "We liked going with maximum protection," Chryst wisecracks, "so Jim could take a javelin thrower's approach to passing."
These days Chryst is busy helping Kaepernick rediscover his mojo. Meanwhile, offensive coordinator Greg Roman, shorthanded at wideout, has used an abundance of "22 personnel": two backs, two tight ends, one wide receiver. "When they play that personnel package," says one former league GM, "it keeps the defense close to the line of scrimmage. It's crowded in there, condensed, so that kind of eliminates the read-option. "To me, Colin needs the read-option to keep alive the threat of play action, to be able to use his legs and move the sticks."
That's the thing about a season like this, it turns everyone into an offensive coordinator. The Niners need to run more read-option. They need to roll Kap out more. He needs to throw more screens, take off on more designed runs. Why aren't they feeding Frank Gore?
For all the armchair playcalling and all the second-guessing of the trade that sent Smith to the Chiefs, this team remains flat-out dangerous—"one of best-looking teams in the NFL," says the former GM. "They're big and physical and play with a lot of brute strength. If they can get the offensive side figured out, they're as good as anybody."
Among the half-dozen Churchill volumes in Harbaugh's bookshelf is one entitled All Will Be Well. That's the vibe he'll project before the Seahawks rematch. "There's a lot of noise out there right now," he said recently. "There's a lot of dirt flying, and sometimes you just gotta stand on the battlefield and not hear it and complete the mission."
Yes, this could be Coach Harbaugh's most disappointing NFL season to date. For his part, he believes it will be the 49ers' finest hour.