SANTA CLARA, Calif. —
Coaching often consumes many of its advocates — those who awaken with football on their minds and fall asleep with visions of new schemes dancing in their heads — like Jim Harbaugh of the San Francisco 49ers.
If ever a man was made for coaching, it would be Harbaugh, who knew dating back to his high school years that he would someday coach.
First of all, he wanted to be like his father, Jack, who coached for Bo Schembechler at Michigan and later won a national championship at Western Kentucky. Even after 15 years as a player in the NFL, Harbaugh knew what his next step would be.
He had planned for a coaching career because “it’s the next best thing to playing.”
There is a sign on the wall in his office that reflects his personality: “Just coach the team.” None of the rest is important. All the external influences — from media to promotion, from selling tickets to schmoozing box holders — are part of the business, but he has one role and primary interest: coach the team.
It is his view that finding a way to improve is the only way to win a championship.
One recent morning here at the 49ers complex, he looked at his wristwatch and exclaimed, “Hey, we got practice this afternoon, and we want to be better than we were yesterday. In football, you can always improve, and that is our goal — to be better today than we were yesterday. If it is only a tenth of a percent, it is still improvement.”
Growing up in Ann Arbor, Mich., Harbaugh got to experience what he considers the greatest rivalry in football: Michigan and Ohio State.
“The day of that game,” he said with a grin, “was better than Christmas.”
His passion for the Maize and Blue to prevail each year was without peer, but he remains a fan of the temperamental Buckeyes coach, Woody Hayes. He has read every book about Hayes, who had lasting affection for poet Ralph Waldo Emerson — which has caused Harbaugh to study Emerson when he has the time.
As he reflected on his past, Harbaugh had a fervent rebuttal about being a quarterback who played in Schembechler’s ground-oriented offense and not seeing much of the forward pass. He began with humor and then lapsed into a serious and grateful stance.
“Oh, we threw it,” he said with a laugh, “every time it was third-and-long.”
Then an intense look came over him as he noted that life under Schembechler had very redeeming features, the principal one having to do with Harbaugh’s goal of becoming a coach.
“It was during Bo’s years that I was exposed to the fundamentals of football,” Harbaugh said. “The way he coached the game was the greatest exposure for a guy planning to become a coach.”
Growing up talking football with his father was always stimulating. He coached for his dad at Western Kentucky while playing in the NFL. When he took over at the University of San Diego and Stanford, Jim asked his dad to coach the running backs; the son recalls picking up little nuggets of information from Jack as they drove to the office together.
“Like the commercial says, that experience was priceless,” he said.
Family gatherings are never without football and sports banter. His brother, John, is head coach of the Baltimore Ravens and his brother-in-law, Tom Crean, is the head basketball coach at Indiana. Pickup games are intense, with no holds barred. The loser might not have anything to say at dinner.
When you mention that John is his older brother, he might say something like, “older and shorter.” But he turns sentimental, reminding you that John is his best friend.
“We slept in the same room for 16 years,” Jim said. “He was always knocking down hurdles for me.”
As is the case when it comes to Peyton and Eli Manning, there are a number of NFL soothsayers who would like to see a Super Bowl matchup of the Harbaugh brothers.
“You can put me down as one who would very much like to see that happen,” Jim said.
One conversation allows an observer to conclude that attitude has made a difference in Harbaugh’s life; it enables him to communicate with his players and elicit a high level of achievement — both for his players and for himself.
And nobody finds his work more exciting.
His conclusion? He is the “luckiest man alive.”
Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org