As head coach of the Stanford University Cardinal, Jim Harbaugh once placed a blue mechanic’s shirt, complete with a red-and-white name patch stitched to the chest, in each player’s locker.
While his players were studying at a distinctly white-collar university – one of the world’s top academic institutions – he asked them to adopt a blue-collar approach to football. The tactic resonated. Soon, they were wearing the shirts in the weight room and around campus. Often, instead of sporting suits on game days, they would file off the bus one blue shirt after another, led by Harbaugh, his name patch simply embroidered “Jim.”
Still as off-beat and rousing today, Harbaugh has many trying to explain how, in his first attempt as an NFL head coach, he has reshaped a San Francisco 49ers team that went 6-10 last season, into one knocking on the door of a Super Bowl appearance.
The 49ers play host to the New York Giants in the NFC championship game on Sunday.
Harbaugh’s energetic and contemporary style is sprinkled with the hard-nosed philosophies he soaked up as the son of college football coach Jack Harbaugh and while playing quarterback under Bo Schembechler at the University of Michigan. Those who worked with Harbaugh before say he repeatedly succeeds because he speaks out, upends team traditions and pumps his chest, even when it seems he has no grounds to do so.
“Confidence is a funny thing, love is a funny thing. I think with these players, you’ve got to darn sure be confident,” Harbaugh said. “You just don’t stand a chance if you’re not.”
The 49ers rallied for six comeback wins this season, and finished 13-3, claiming the NFC West Division title. San Francisco had not won more than eight games in a season since 2002.
The former quarterback has rejuvenated signal-caller Alex Smith – largely considered an NFL bust before this year – by installing an offence that suited him.
“He has this deal where he doesn’t care what people are thinking around him, especially outside of this building,” Smith said of Harbaugh. “And I think guys like that a lot. I think guys appreciate that because it is authentic.”
The 49ers’ strength is defence, and the cornerstone of the coach’s game-planning. When warranted, the offence conservatively settled for field goals and let the defence dictate, with Harbaugh deflecting outside criticism for it. In the first game of the playoffs last weekend, he planned aggressively and took risks to upset the New Orleans Saints, showing faith and chasing touchdowns.
Harbaugh, 48, played football as a boy in Ann Arbor, where his father was an assistant coach at the University of Michigan. He and brother, John, now head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, would watch practices.
“I was always trying to get him off the field so he wasn’t in the way,” said Jerry Hanlon, a long-time assistant at Michigan, who would later tutor Harbaugh as quarterbacks coach. “They would listen to us hollering, and just maybe they noticed coaching was about teaching, too, and making the kids want to learn.”
Harbaugh became a three-year starter at Michigan, a football program rooted in Schembechler’s slogan: “Those who stay will be champions.” He finished his college career in the top five of nearly every passing category in the school’s history.
As a senior in 1985, Harbaugh led the nation in passing efficiency and took the Wolverines to a 10-1-1 record and a No. 2 ranking. Along the way, the cocky quarterback told reporters he guaranteed a victory over rival Ohio State.
“He almost got me fired for that – Bo came at me screaming, ‘Can’t you control your players?’ ” Hanlon said with a laugh. “So Bo ran with it, said: ‘Our quarterback has made a statement, so now by gosh, we better back it up.’ It was a rallying point for our team, not a hindrance.”
Harbaugh earned latitude in running the offence. He was so competitive, he would sometimes rip teammates, failing to understand why they wouldn’t stretch completely for an overthrown ball. But he would also motivate them, constantly pushing in practice to earn one of the wolverine helmet decals coaches rewarded for only the finest efforts.
“Bo would say to the offence, ‘My best players are on defence,’ and that would tick Jim off and get all of us really fired up,” former running back Jamie Morris said. “Jim would say, ‘We practise against the No. 1 defence, so that must make us the No. 1 offence, right?’
“The longer Jim played under Bo, the more he would sound like him.”
During his 14-year NFL career, with Chicago Bears, Indianapolis Colts, Baltimore Ravens, and San Diego Chargers, Harbaugh also worked as an unpaid assistant to his father at Western Kentucky University. After retirement, Harbaugh coached quarterbacks for the Oakland Raiders, then became head coach at the University of San Diego, using tough love that made many players quit and the rest into a 11-1 team within two seasons. In 2006, Stanford hired him, hoping he could do the same for its 1-11 team.
“He would constantly be asking, ‘Why have you guys been doing things that way?’ and I had no answer other than, ‘Because it’s the way we’ve always done it,’ ” said Matt Doyle, Stanford director of football operations. “When Jim got here, he changed the culture, said: ‘Don’t think this losing is a cycle that can’t end.’ ”
Harbaugh altered some long-standing school traditions, like The Walk, in which all players – including hefty linemen in knee braces – walked across Stanford’s campus in full equipment through crowds before games. He also nixed the custom of all practices being open to the public, and always taking the hot, sunny side of Stanford’s stadium (tradition had dictated the Cardinal be opposite the press box).
When a fan wrote in protesting against Stanford’s new black jerseys, Harbaugh wrote back explaining the team’s decision, a response he read aloud to his players, punctuated with: “Kiss my [expletive]”
Harbaugh made his players learn about Stanford’s 1940 team, which had gone 10-0. He insisted they all write letters to their parents and dedicate their performance to them. He strung up new slogans around the facility, including Schembechler’s famous one. And the team chant was one his father used with his siblings: “Who’s got it better than us? Nobody.”
Harbaugh also called out successful University of Southern California coach Pete Carroll in the media and said: “We bow to no program.” Stanford met the Los Angeles school as a 41-point underdog his first year, and upset it 24-23.
“Coming off a 1-11 season, you can’t imagine how much pride and energy his words had created within our team,” former offensive guard Andrew Phillips recalled.
In four seasons at Stanford, Harbaugh’s team improved vastly, eventually going 12-1 in 2010, before NFL teams called with head coaching job offers too good to pass up.
He joined the 49ers, taking with him his chant: “Who’s got it better than us?”
Harbaugh’s first season as an NFL head coach has been full of moments that have motivated the 49ers and entertained the football world. Exuberant after a comeback win over Detroit, he walloped Lions coach Jim Schwartz with an overzealous back slap that started a scuffle and showed the NFL this wasn’t a newcomer tip-toeing around etiquette.
Harbaugh has his 49ers players wearing the same blue mechanic’s shirts. He made them a motivational video of a honey badger, playing off a popular YouTube.com craze about the wild animal. He made the honey badger a symbol of the team’s fearless mentality, barking the mantra that both charges his players and has them in hysterics: “Honey badger don’t care!”
Last Sunday, Phillips watched his old coach embrace 49ers tight end Vernon Davis emphatically after his game-winning touchdown, and smiled when he heard Davis describe in an interview why Harbaugh’s teachings resonate with players.
“Davis answered that question the same way I would have, by saying: ‘It’s the way he cares’ ” Phillips said. “It’s one thing to call a team a family, but it’s an entirely different thing to do the little things coach Harbaugh does to make that true.”