LOS ANGELES, April 20, 2014 — At the Orlando 2014 meetings of NFL owners in March, one of the most highly sought after interviewees for most of the media was San Francisco 49ers Head Coach Jim Harbaugh.
Harbaugh is from a great football family. His brother John Harbaugh coaches the Baltimore Ravens. Their father Jack Harbaugh was the coach at Stanford, where son Jim also coached.
Loved by some, hated by others and highly successful, Jim Harbaugh took over a 49ers squad mired in losing and instantly turned them into winners.
Harbaugh has always had a thick skin. As a quarterback for the Chicago Bears, he endured more than one sideline tirade by Coach Mike Ditka. In one game, Harbaugh started two for 19 and took a beating against the 7-0 Saints. In the final moments, Harbaugh completed three passes, the last one for the 20-17 Bears win. Ditka praised his five for 22 quarterback to the media to no end.
When Harbaugh quarterbacked the Indianapolis Colts, the 1995 team began 4-7. Harbaugh led the Colts to five straight wins, sneaking into the playoffs. The Colts then shocked 13-3 Kansas City for a brutal 10-7 win. In the AFC Title Game, the Colts were one play away from a miracle win. Harbaugh’s Hail Mary pass at the gun looked like it was caught in the end zone before finally being ruled incomplete. The ball did hit the ground, as the Colts suffered the tough 20-16 loss.
One knock on Harbaugh the quarterback is that while he was tough, he had the benefit of playing with some great defenses. Harbaugh’s supporters point out that many quarterbacks only understand offense. Harbaugh the coach has built the 49ers into a title contender by assembling a nasty defense. Unlike the glamorous 49ers of the 1980s, Harbaugh’s squads win ugly, with stifling defense.
In 2011, Harbaugh took the 6-10 team he inherited and got them to a 13-3 record. A crushing overtime loss in the NFC Title Game was followed by the 2012 squad reaching the Super Bowl. The 49ers faced off against the Ravens in the “Harbowl” featuring both Harbaugh brothers. The 49ers fell behind 28-6 and rallied to within five points and five yards of a victory. In 2013 the 49ers reached the NFC Title Game for the third straight year, and again suffered a bitter defeat. This time it was the archival Seattle Seahawks who locked up a 23-17 victory in the final seconds by intercepting San Francisco in the end zone when it looked like the 49ers were going to get the win.
On television, Harbaugh comes across as brash. He is certainly demonstrative, and has been criticized for a perceived arrogance. Yet when dealing with individual people, Harbaugh is generous with his time and gracious with his conversation.
His football heroes are all coaches, not players. Most of them are from the college ranks and not the NFL. He starts with his father Jack and his brother John. His main football heroes outside of his family include the great Michigan coaching legend Bo Schembechler and Iowa legend Woody Hayes.
Those men were old-school guys who won with running the ball and defense. Hayes was known for “three yards and a cloud of dust.” Another football hero of his is Dave Adolph, a widely respected defensive coordinator around the NFL. Adolph defenses are aggressive, attacking defenses.
Harbaugh is a religious man who would publicly espouse his faith in post-game interviews during his quarterbacking days. He is also a history buff, especially when it comes to wartime leaders. His main heroes outside of football include Winston Churchill, Jesus Christ and Abraham Lincoln.
When asked how he wanted to be remembered 100 years from now, Harbaugh said he wanted a “zero balance.” He wanted, “as many people to have loved me as those who hated me.” He knows that, “some people like me and some people do not,” but he will be content with “achieving a zero balance” when the votes about him are tallied.
Harbaugh’s advice for those looking to succeed in the world of football was what one would expect from a disciplinarian. “Show up. Work hard. Listen.”
As for that 1995 AFC Title Game, when one looks at the film, sometimes it almost looks like that Hail Mary was caught. Harbaugh smiled at that thought and said, “I hear you. I hear you.”
The one word most people would not associate with Jim Harbaugh is gentle. Those people have not seen him doting over his wife and daughters.
His tough style will always lead to criticism, but the results on the field are there for all to see. Harbaugh the person will have zero trouble achieving more than a zero balance from those who have met the man.