This is my Thursday column.
When the 49ers’ training camp begins in about a month, practices will be shorter, quieter, less intense than last year. And someone will be missing.
His absence hangs over the 49ers’ entire season. He’s the biggest story on the team, and he isn’t even on the team.
Let’s acknowledge he who must not be named. These are the top five things I will miss about Harbaugh.
The way he ran practices
When practice started, the bill of Harbaugh’s hat pointed straight in front him. He’d watch the players warm up, make notes with a sharpie and blow his whistle — official coach stuff.
That would last about 20 minutes. Then Harbaugh would turn his cap backwards, run over to a position group and do drills with them. Sometimes he’d throw passes with the quarterbacks. Sometimes he’d run routes with the tight ends. Sometimes he’d kick punts so the special teams could practice blocking them.
He was the most enthusiastic coach I’ve ever seen. He couldn’t just coach a practice — he had to participate in it, be the center of it. He was like the sun, and the players were planets orbiting him.
The way he shut down national writers and radio hosts
Harbaugh likes to shut down people’s questions. He’ll quibble with the wording, or simply refuse to answer. Especially if he doesn’t know the questioner.
Sometimes a famous national writer would come to Santa Clara for a day to ask Harbaugh a few questions during his group interview. The writer seemed to expect thoughtful, in-depth answers from Harbaugh, as if Harbaugh would be impressed by the writer’s byline, as if Harbaugh shut down only the local beat writers.
For national writers like this, Harbaugh would reserve his shortest, most awkward answers. And every time, Harbaugh would catch the writer completely by surprise. The writer would quickly follow up with two or three questions and try to force a good answer out of Harbaugh, and Harbaugh would answer in monosyllables. And the writer would sit there fuming.
In that respect, Harbaugh was tremendously egalitarian.
The way he didn’t hold grudges
You can criticize Harbaugh. You can criticize his ability to coach, his offensive system, his game management. You can even criticize his personality. The next day, he’ll greet you with a smile. He doesn’t take business personally.
I’ll give you an example. In 2013, Aldon Smith drove his truck into a tree when he was drunk a few days before the 49ers’ Week 3 game against the Indianapolis Colts. Harbaugh played Smith anway.
Before the game, I predicted the 49ers would lose. They lost by 20. After the game, I wrote “by playing Aldon Smith, Jim Harbaugh undermined the integrity of the franchise.”
The next day, Harbaugh walked through the 49ers’ locker room looking for me. “Hi, Grant,” he said with a smile. It was the first time he ever talked to me or said my name. We always got along after that.
His defensive staff
You always can tell the pedigree of a coach by the quality of his assistants. A bad coach is threatened by top-notch assistants — he’s afraid one of them will take his job. Former Warriors coach Mark Jackson was threatened by his assistants.
Harbaugh never was. Harbaugh had the best assistant coaches, especially on defense where he needed help. Harbaugh freely admitted defense wasn’t his thing — he was an offensive guy. He needed great defensive coaches, and he got them.
In the entire league, Vic Fangio was the best defensive coordinator and Ed Donatell was the best defensive backs coach. Harbaugh hired both of them, and he gets credit for doing that.
It was such a pleasure watching Fangio and Donatell make the 49ers’ defense one of the best in the NFL year after year, no matter which players they had.
Harbaugh didn’t merely want to win. He wanted to kick butt, wanted to embarrass the other head coach.
Any coach going against Harbaugh was in for it. Jobs were at stake — not just wins and losses.
Former Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz learned that the hard way. Not only did Harbaugh beat him in 2011, Harbaugh ruined him, slapped Schwartz in the back after the game and made him look like a little complaining punk. Two seasons later, the Lions fired him. It’ll be a while before he gets another chance to coach an NFL team.
Then there’s Green Bay Packers’ head coach Mike McCarthy, generally considered one of the best coaches in the NFL.
Every time they faced each other, McCarthy was a step behind. He’d adjust to what Harbaugh did in the previous game, but not to what Harbaugh did in the current game. By the fourth quarter, McCarthy would look ill on the sideline. Harbaugh gave him sour stomach.
I’ll miss the sour-stomach look.
Stay tuned for the top five things I won’t miss about Harbaugh.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.