The Jim Harbaugh Game: The coach and his world of contradictions

Here is my Monday column on Jim Harbaugh.

SANTA CLARA – Here’s how you play The Jim Harbaugh Game:

Listen to his next interview. Write down the exact time he sets himself up for future contradiction. Then, predict how long it will take for the contradiction to occur – a year, a month, a day, an hour, a minute, etc.

Harbaugh most recently set himself up on June 11. One Bay Area reporter asked Harbaugh if the division rival Seattle Seahawks’ recent PED suspensions concerned him, and Harbaugh said he’s “definitely noticed it,” and wants the 49ers to be “above reproach.”

Thirty-eight days later, the 49ers’ traded for cornerback Eric Wright, whom the NFL suspended last season for four games because he violated the league’s performance enhancing drug policy. He also was arrested for a DUI the weekend before the 49ers traded for him. He failed his physical and the 49ers voided the trade.

So, if you had 38 days in your Jim Harbaugh Game office pool, congratulations, you win a set of steak knives.

Other examples abound of Harbaugh contradicting himself.

The 49ers have yet to discipline Ahmad Brooks for bashing teammate Lamar Divens in the head three times with a glass bottle. Above reproach, indeed.

Harbaugh insisted Alex Smith was the 49ers’ starting quarterback even when Smith sat on the bench watching Kaepernick start. That was Harbaugh contradicting himself and reality, an impressive head-body combo.

Harbaugh always talks about “humble hearts.” Please. Humble is not the word to describe Harbaugh. His sideline etiquette is the opposite of humble. It is arrogant. He rants and raves at officials like a child throwing a tantrum because his parents took away his Schwinn Racer.

And what about his protégé, Colin Kaepernick? Kaepernick kisses his bicep after touchdowns. He showed up to a Fourth of July party shirtless wearing a green-billed Miami Dolphins hat to match his exposed green underwear, then scoffed at 49ers fans who didn’t appreciate the symbolism of his wearing of another NFL team’s logo. Then he posed nude for ESPN the Magazine. Then he went to the ESPY awards looking like a detective from Miami Vice: red blazer, light blue pants, unbuttoned undershirt and sunglasses indoors at night. But his heart was humble.

When Jim Harbaugh first took the job as the 49ers’ head coach in 2011, he didn’t put his foot in his mouth nearly as often. He used Bill Belichick’s style of media relations – never answer anything and say as few words as possible.

It’s not the media’s preference to work with this type of coach, obviously. But fans will put up with that style as long as the coach wins, and so far Harbaugh has won much more than he’s lost.

As long as he’s winning, he might want to go back to the Belichick-style because his current style, if you can call it a style, is getting him into trouble. It’s more like carelessness, a person unconcerned with the meaning of the words he uses. Or if you want to be less generous, you could call it disingenuousness.

We’re not even a week into training camp, and already Harbaugh has set himself up twice.

On Thursday, Harbaugh told reporters it’s his “desire” to re-sign strong safety Donte Whitner, who will be a free agent after this upcoming season. If you’ve kept track at home, Harbaugh publicly has stated a desire to re-sign three players in the past – Dashon Goldson, Randy Moss and Joshua Morgan – and the 49ers re-signed none of them.

In other words, you’re out, Donte.

On Sunday, Harbaugh announced he would “break a long-standing policy not to discuss contracts in the media” for the sake of Tarell Brown. At this point of the news conference, an experienced Jim Harbaugh Gamer should have marked down the time.

Brown lost $2 million of his 2013 base salary for not participating in the 49ers’ voluntary offseason workouts, a contractual technicality neither Brown nor his agent knew about. As a result, Brown, an excellent cornerback, will earn $925,000 this season.

Here’s what Harbaugh said about that: “I just think that there’s a solution there. Don’t know that it’s any one particular thing, but we’ll explore all of those options and find the solution. It’s there, we’ve just got to do some thinking and do some work.

“We’re very motivated to do that because he deserves it, he’s earned it. I don’t want to see him playing for the minimum when he’s a starting, top-end player.”

Oh, boy.

Did you have to say all of that, Jim? Did you gain anything by breaking your own policy?

If you’re going to find a solution for Brown, find it. Don’t tell us. It’s tough for a veteran Harbaugh Gamer to trust you.

We’re currently at Day 2 and counting.

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for the Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at

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  1. Alot of the commentary following this article neglects the fact that the story is fairly objective about Jim Harbaugh’s conduct. It simply lacks the zealous adulation that most fans expect of a piece about the “home team.”

    There’s no question that the 49rs have been successful, and that Harbaugh is a part of that. The author’s cautionary tale is a valid one. Look at Rex Ryan as an imperfect analogy. When the Jets were winning, Rex Ryan was interesting. Now that they are losing, he is am embarrasing train wreck for the organization.

    The author’s salient observations portend that sort of outcome for the Niners. Harbaugh will be beloved because we excuse all in sports when a team is winning. The cautionary tale is that Harbaugh’s antics aren’t really anything to be all that proud of–a return to a more measured and taciturn approach to his public persona might be just what the doctor ordered. Well-written piece.

      1. Claude,

        What about his article is not objective? Was he inaccurate about the Eric Wright move? Was he inaccurate regarding Harbaugh’s sideline demeanor? One certainly cannot “objectively” say that Harbaugh is reserved on the sideline, can they? Was the author wrong or too partisan regarding the description of the assault among team members which has not, as of yet, received any public notice of discipline?

        Saying the author isn’t objective isn’t the same thing as proving it. The article is sound and fair. I honestly think that fans consider the article not to be objective becasue the expectation in fan blogs is that there be a palpable level of partisanship in favor of the home team in any stories. This blog article is very fairminded and raises very reasonable concerns about the team’s future with a volatile, vocal, and, at times, inconsistent, head coach.

      2. Bret

        Harbaugh is nothing, if not consistent.

        Is he vocal? Certainly. Is he actually as volatile as his sideline histrionics might demonstrate? I doubt it.

        The moron known as Coach Fraud Singlemind was infinitely more inconsistent and volatile than is Harbaugh. Why is Harbaugh not these things? Because he was born to be a football coach, played a long career in the modern NFL (with all of its attendant media frenzy), and has the pulse of his players like only one other coach in the league (the other Harbaugh).

        Like Claude, I say that this is NOT an objective article. Yes, there are some aspects of it that might be objectively perceived in the way you have chosen to perceive them, but it is Lowell’s (oops, I mean Grant’s) sourpuss, petulant tone that gives away the truly subjective nature of this piece (of cr*p).

      3. E,

        The trend on the internet is to describe anything that is contrarian as “objective”. I have found it is useless to point out the objective definition of “objective” to such folks – they prefer their subjective view that anything that challenges received wisdom must, by its nature, be objective. They entirely miss the point that true objectivity is measured by the considered weighing of data absent emotion or a priori assumptions, not by the level of contradiction.

        You, Claude and I are clearly out of step with this new objectivity.

      4. If you all don’t like Grant’s depiction of Harbaugh here, go check out the piece from Ann Killion last week which strikes a very similar tone, or the one from Tim Kawakami last week which is also similar.

        There is no denying that Harbaugh is a very good coach, one of the best in the game today, but as Grant points out his words to those outside the organization are meaningless, and if you wait for just a bit he will prove it to you.

      5. Bret:

        What about his article is not objective?

        Just about the entire thing. From Merriam Webster’s definition of objective:

        … expressing or dealing with facts or conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices, or interpretations

        The article did not consist of an even-handed, unprejudiced analysis of the incidents discussed therein. Each incident was distorted so as to fit a predetermined agenda, and alternate explanations for and/or interpretations of Harbaugh’s words and actions were ignored.

        Moreover, Grant’s dislike for Harbaugh shone through – he freely mocked him, and the whole let’s-play-the-Jim-Harbaugh-Contradiction-game schtick had a snarky tone, neither of which is the hallmark of objectivity. Grant even went so far as to blame Harbaugh for Kaepernick’s recent behavior when none of that behavior even remotely called to mind anything Harbaugh has ever said, done, or worn. Grant clearly had an axe to grind.

        Whether or not you agree with its conclusions, the article was in no way an impartial assessment of Harbaugh.

      6. Jack wrote, “his words to those outside the organization are meaningless, and if you wait for just a bit he will prove it to you.”

        I agree with this, and it is exactly this point in Grant’s editorial that I found of interest. However, a valid conclusion does not make a piece “objective” or “factual” in the sense that posters have cited here.

        Grant’s editorial is not objective — he is extolling his position while giving short shrift to alternative possible interpretations. Of course, that is the nature of editorials, so I do not fault him for it. I do fault those who cannot distinguish between objectivity and “sticking it to the man”.

        In the same vein, Grant’s editorial is not a “factual” piece other than that he cites data (which is more than many editorials can claim). It is, on its face, an opinion piece, as are all such analyses. I find his opinion valid, but validity is not concomitant with “factual” any more than contrarianism is with “objectivity”.

      7. Jack

        Ahem, you’re always worth a good push and a poke. Got a link? A generous serving of links is never a bad thing.

        And here’s the Killion piece:

        Jack, your characterization of Killion’s tone being similar to Grant’s gives you away as someone who doesn’t understand tone. Not your fault, just shows that you were never a scholar of the English language, in the strictest sense.

        What Killion’s article proves unequivocally, however, is that Grant should be charged with being unoriginal, at the very least, and with damn-near plagiarism at worst. I, for one, am shocked that Grant would so shamelessly rip off another writer’s material.

  2. Grant, when the team finally revokes your press access, you should consider a move back east. The NY Post – that Murdoch rag – can always use another snarky assassin. You could even hit the ground running, commenting on your seeming obsession – the contradictory nature of the local NFL head coach.

    Only thing is, you’ll have to convince the editors you are the offspring of one of the current columnists to get your foot in the door.

    1. It is an interesting editorial piece, and for the most part I cannot fault Grant’s final analysis (although, like “E”, I wish he would not follow his father’s penchant for vitriolic prose when he has the ability to make his point without such). However, the article is not “factual”. It is an opinion piece predicated on observational evidence. The observational evidence is factual in that said observations are data, but the data are interlaced with interpretation and evaluation that are, by their nature, opinion.

      1. JPN

        It is not interesting, because Jim Harbaugh is a world-renowned double-talker. I’ll guarantee you that #sharknado would never have hit the big-time if sharks really were hoovered up by tornadoes and hurled landward.

        Harbaugh was downright charming and genuinely pleasant to listen to on Murph and Mac this morning, by the way. Now THAT’S newsworthy.

  3. Howdy, E. Still the king of the non sequitor, I see. You do keep it all entertaining, I must admit.

    At least we are in agreement that Grant should not follow in his father’s footsteps in his style and tone.

    1. Oh, JPN, it was a sequitur. Not that I would expect a mind as beautiful as yours to stoop to embrace #sharknado, but the point remains salient.

      I trust you’re preparing to knock us all on our collective arse again this season with the most interesting verbiage on the web. Please do post frequently.

    2. E,

      It is a non sequitor in that it does not support your assertion that Grant’s piece lacks interest. It does support your interpretation of Grant’s analysis, but that is a separate consideration from the level of interest contained therein.

      And, alas, you are correct. I have not watched Sharknado. However, my seven-year-old son, who is fascinated by all things involving carcharhiniformes, has expressed interest in viewing it.

      1. JPN

        If yet another example of “the expected” world-renowned Harbaugh double-talk can be considered an interest-generator, then yes, you’re correct.

        However, I suspect the interest generated by #sharknado was so massive precisely because nobody had ever considered what might happen if Carcharodon carcharias fell like frogs from the sky…

  4. I find that Grant has gone beyond merely pontificating on instances of Harbaugh double-speak. What is of interest is his examination of the instances in which the double-speak has created negative reactions of the type that may become problematic if the current success of the 49ers does not continue. It is his analysis of possible deeper ramifications of the contradictory statements, and their occurrence when silence may have been the better path, that propels this piece beyond the mundane, much as it sounds that Sharknado’s twister riding sharks falling from the sky is a more interesting expansion of Saturday Night Live’s Land Shark bit from the 70s ( (Sorry I could not find a video without the advertisement).

  5. Old Coach,

    Are you talking about an article that discussed Jacke Elway’s physique in a very unflattering way? That was by Lowell Cohn.

    That has to be the low point of LC’s career. It was funny article, but it was mean spirited. Later, I believe, LC apologized in print.

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