Why Harbaugh is so good

This is my Sunday column on what makes Jim Harbaugh a good head coach.

SEATTLE — Serious question — what makes Jim Harbaugh a good head coach?

Clearly, he is a good coach. His record reflects that. More than three wins for every loss as a head coach in the NFL. But Harbaugh doesn’t call his own plays like Bill Walsh or Sean Payton, and Harbaugh isn’t a defensive specialist like Bill Belichick or Pete Carroll.

So why is Harbaugh good?

“He’s got good assistant coaches,” Vic Fangio, the 49ers’ defensive coordinator, said with a smile Thursday afternoon. Half serious, but speaking some truth. Harbaugh has some of the best assistant coaches in the NFL: Mike Solari is one of the best offensive-line coaches, Jim Tomsula is one of the best defensive-line coaches and Fangio is one of the best defensive coordinators.

Where would Harbaugh be without those guys?

Harbaugh gets credit for having top-notch assistants. Having good assistants is the mark of a good head coach. Bill Walsh had Mike Holmgren, George Seifert and Bobb McKittrick. Mike Singletary had Jimmy Raye, an offensive coordinator no other NFL team wanted. Singletary didn’t want to be challenged. Walsh welcomed challenge, and so does Harbaugh.

But Harbaugh doesn’t stand out just because of his assistant coaches. Harbaugh stands out because of himself. He wills his team to play harder than almost every other team in the league. He is defined by his will.

The 49ers started out the season 1-2 and they could have tanked. Michael Crabtree was out. Aldon Smith was out. The 49ers were in the same position as the Falcons. Both teams had played in the NFC Championship game the season before, and both teams were 1-2.

The Falcons tanked, finished the season 4-12.

But the 49ers became the most dominant team in the NFL. After the 1-2 start, the 49ers are 13-2 and could be 14-2 after today.

What is it about Harbaugh? How does he will an NFL team to dominate?

At his locker this week, Anthony Dixon, the 49ers’ fullback, thought about what makes Harbaugh good. Dixon put his foot on his stool, rested an elbow on his knee and grabbed his chin. The Thinker.

“Part of it is his drive to win and do whatever it takes,” said Dixon. “We work a lot. We work long. I think that’s what sets him apart. Jim Harbaugh’s approach is serious. He’s loose at times, but he’s serious. We’re going to get it right, and that’s the bottom line.”

Seahawks’ wide receiver Doug Baldwin, Harbaugh’s former player when he coached at Stanford, recently told the Seattle Times that Harbaugh has “more of a military-type style. It has to be precise and exactly the way he wants it.”

Harbaugh’s military-style rubbed Baldwin the wrong way — those two didn’t get along at Stanford. But Harbaugh’s style seems to work for the 49ers.

“He doesn’t kill your confidence,” said Dixon. “He helps build that. He’s got all his little confidence phrases and poems that he comes up with. You can get with him because you can tell he’s a fighter. That’s what I love about him the most.

“Another thing that is good about him, he doesn’t lose his poise. I know you see how he is on the sideline sometimes, but in the meetings he’s focused and every day he brings that sense of looseness. If you mess up plays, he doesn’t blow up. He doesn’t go acting all outraged. He just says, ‘Alright, guys, line it back up.’ When you get that from a coach, it makes you want to do it because you know he’s not going to bust our balls. Some coaches want to kick, scream and holler, and then everybody else loses their poise because you feel like he’s treating you like a kid. But, Coach Harbaugh always treats us like men and he knows we’re human.”

Harbaugh played for a notorious screamer — Mike Ditka. And Harbaugh didn’t play well for Ditka. Harbaugh knows a head coach can kill a player’s confidence, and Harbaugh doesn’t kill confidence.

Harbaugh makes every member of his team feel special and important, from Dixon to NaVorro Bowman. “We have our little sessions at the end of practice where guys give their speech or whatever they want to say to guys,” said Bowman, “And it’s not the captains, it’s not the superstars, it’s everyone on this team.”

That’s Harbaugh’s best quality. He’s a genius at getting people to play hard and play together. A genius at building a team. He’s an includer. He’ll listen to anyone’s ideas and then he makes his own decision.

“The thing I’m most proud of,” said Harbaugh, “Is being part of a great team. I think every human being has a desire to be a part of something that’s bigger than themselves, and be a part of a team effort, where people are striving to do something great. And to have found that, to be a part of that team, I can’t tell you how special that is and how much that means to me.”

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

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  1. He’s a leader, and he has street cred for having played the game. I hope he wants to stay and Jed can get a deal done…..

      1. That doesn’t make any sense. Ideally, you want a guy that wants to get in but will shut his pie hole for the betterment of the team. Or you can tout guys like Brandon Jacobs, Jack.

  2. two more wins this year, or else.
    Or else what?

    YOU SUCK EGGS, that’s what.

  3. Good stuff Grant. Harbaugh seems to share many of the same qualities of other successful coaches. His guys would run through a wall for him.

  4. Obviously great leaders are great at inspiring and encouraging others, but looking deeper the best leaders tend to have a few traits in common:

    - They understand people aren’t homogeneous – different things make different people tick, and different people have different skills
    - They put people in positions to succeed based on the different skills they have
    - Despite the different personalities and skills, they understand the importance of having and committing to common goals and bringing people together
    - They understand the best way to get people to do what they want is to get them to want the same thing themselves
    - They aren’t afraid to use the stick, but they understand the carrot is better
    - They realise they don’t have to do it all themselves
    - They have enough self confidence to not be intimidated by having great minds and egos surrounding them
    - They understand confidence and trust is key

    Why is Jim Harbaugh so successful? Because he ticks the above boxes.

    1. Another thing that I would add Scooter is that they aren’t afraid to make changes for the betterment of those following them.

  5. Where would Harbaugh go that is better than Santa Clara? Name one team or one owner who would make his life better.

  6. Good article Grant. I think Dixon nailed it when he said that Harbaugh is a confidence builder. This guy has helped players like Alex Smith and Michael Crabtree to start realizing what they are capable of. I can’t wait to see the blue-collar players that this team will churn out under his tutelage.

  7. Nice article Grant. 41 wins in just 3 years is remarkable. Must give Jed York props for making this hire and promoting Trent to the GM position. Harbaugh is on his way to being the dominant coach of the decade. 49ers are lucky to have him and though he may lose his coordinators in the next few years, his system and key players are in place and the Niners should be a dominant team for awhile.

      1. I’d have to disagree Grant and say that 2011-2012 is Harbaugh’s best coaching job. He took a team with a QB that had been run through the mill, a #1 WR that had yet to reach his potential and had no help in the receiving game except for Davis, and some cast offs and had them within two Kyle Williams gaffes and a bad call on a Bradshaw fumble from going to the Super Bowl, all in his first year as HC.

      2. Grant,

        I agree. The way they have navigated through the season with the injuries, going on the road to GB and Carolina.

  8. I did a dumb thing. Wore my niners shirt to Costco. Why is that so dumb? Because I live next to Seattle. Even the cute old sample ladies tried to stab me with a chicken bone. Good thing I had my baby with me. No one will jump a guy with a baby.

    1. Nah. Just raise up your left hand and hold up five fingers, then kiss your right bicep, and then lift up your index finger. I’m sure that they will figure out what holding up five then six fingers means.

      1. I guess my blood is up, cuz I’m thinking if I’m at the game and catching a raz from the homies, I’m wearing my jersey and giving ‘em two upraised middle fingers just to say: Niners are Number One! With big smiles!
        If the Niners overcome tomorrow, it will be on attitude and determination. Refuse to lose.
        ‘ So it’s night. Straighten out the pins on your frags. Get your head right. Prepare to give whatever is needed. Be calm. Don’t worry, that’s wasted energy. It’s coming. Just give yourself up. Do everything you can. That’s enough.’
        From a letter to my Dad from Khe Sanh, 1/20/68.

      1. That’s odd… I live an hour from Chico, CA. And I watched last years NFC championship game against the Falcons a bar in downtown Chico called “The Bear”. Everyone and their mothers were decked out in 9ers gear. And after they won tons of college kids including myself were running through the streets of downtown Chico celebrating.

  9. Grant, where’s your prediction for the game?? I gave mine in your prediction column comments -Panthers by a whisker, last week. I predicted Niners by at least 10.

    Here’s my prediction for Sunday – Niners by 10 again. Not based on simple stats or previous games between them – but because they are clearly the team of destiny this year – like the Ravens, Giants, and Packer teams who won the SB previously.

    The Niners defensive front 7 is playing better than ever, they will stuff Seattle’s offense most of the day, and Seattle’s D cannot completely stop Kaep, Boldin, Crabtree, Davis AND Gore.

    Look for the Niners to jump out to a 10 point lead, quiet the crowd, and hold on for their 7th trip to the SB.

    1. I agree. You know how the Niners usually defer if they win the coin toss? For this game I think they take it and try to score quickly to shut the crowd up.

  10. Here’ s something that perhaps you’ll agree captures the Harbaugh spirit at least a little bit.

    This Sunday, the 49ers will once again face the Seahawks. They’ll do so in Seattle, probably in miserable conditions of harsh wind and cold rain, in a forum diabolically designed to disconcert and disrupt visiting opponents, against a formidable – some would even say daunting – team hungry for a chance to win their first Super Bowl. They’ll do it against a supremely sly coach who has been a fierce rival of our coach for years, amid Emerald City fans who (except for “Capeman”:-)) fully live up to their alleged depiction in a Kolin Kaepernick Kommercial. In short, what our team must face come Sunday is horrendous, the kind of horrendous that no one, no team should ever have to face and that only the toughest can face. And now let me ask you: since we have to go there anyhow, WOULD YOU HAVE IT ANY OTHER WAY?
    San Francisco 30 – Seattle 20

    The following brief movie clip shows, first, how the Seahawks beat us up and pushed us down and mocked us in week 2, second, how we got back up and marched onto the field and took care of business at Candlestick in week 14, and, third, our message to the Seahawks for post-season play. N.B.: for “You tell him I’m coming” please read “You tell them we’re coming.”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qheb3JyMHSU

    1. Very little chance of any rain and wind. Temperature’s gonna be in the low 40′s at start time. It’s gonna feel like the tropics for a team that had to play in near-zero degrees Green Bay.

      1. I would think that the mild weather would favor us – or, at any rate, our passing game. (I threw in the adverse weather further to dramatize the challenge.:-))
        Thanks for commenting.

  11. Two biggest influences on Coach Harbaughs career and why he is such a balanced coach, Jack Harbaugh and the most underrated coach in NFL history who revolutionized the passing game, Lindy Infante.

  12. Nice piece Grant. There is something about his will to win, and I’d suggest part of it is his ability to get his players to work before and between games. Some say games are mostly won on the practice field and weight room and coaching rooms. Jim gets his guys to embrace the work, to want to work and the preparation shows.
    My daughter has played music since elementary school. When she got to middle school she was so inspired by her teacher that he increased her practice time dedication, and shock, her improvement was meteoric.
    Jim inspires his guys.
    As to Baldwin’s (fair) comment about Harb’s ‘military’ approach, some of us just call that Old School. Perfection, attention to detail, personal accountability all were things pounded into me at Perris Island.
    “Don’t tell me you’re sorry! Don’t ever be sorry for anything you do in The Corps! Just don’t have anything to be sorry about Maggot!” -SSgt Morin, USMC

  13. I know its not Super Bowl XIX but who will be 49ers version of Carl Monroe tmrw? V Mac?…Grant is too young to remember Carl Monroe.

      1. MidWestDuckDynasty – Kendall Hunter is a good choice. What about Q. Patton or Dixon?
        Bro Tuna – I’m a mess tonight, a complete nervous wreck bro. I have a good vibe for how the game is going to go tmrw but nothin is certain except death and taxes right?

      2. Yeah Crab I’m looney, channelling 1968, LOL. Thinking about extreme challenges and facing adversity. And Overcoming! Onward!

      3. Chick flicks with The Duchess to kill time and calm down. W e saw “Her” at the theater before dinner. Some nonsense on Comcast tonight I guess. No football either; I don’t need stimulation; (snicker.)
        I guess this reminds me somewhat of SY and the 49ers trying to get past Dallas in their great years.
        PS Russian River Valley Pinot Noir makes for a nice sedative.

      4. Brotha Tuna – Enjoy the vino…HoferFan would be proud. :)… Talk to you tmrw…..Beat Pete!!
        Do not fear Seattle for there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known.

    1. I hope we’re not all stroking ourselves about RW’s reduced yardages. He’s nobody’s fool, he’ll understand the moment. Yes, I think the Niners can harass him if they can contain him; and they’d better!
      TK made reasoned arguements and I sure hope he’s right.
      BTW, in defense of Grant’s (inherited) fierce independence from being a Homer writer (some of whom are lame) that we so often criticize, TK made mention of his own reticence in that regard. It provides some context.

  14. It’s my birthday on game day, and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate than a Niners victory in Seattle. Been lucky on my birthdays in the past, so hope the streak continues!

    1. Happy birthday Fourth. Here’s hoping that you get the awesome present of the Niners punching their ticket for the Super Bowl.

    2. I hope you have a marvelous birthday and that we have more than one thing to celebrate at the end of the day. I hope there is a rash all over the bay area of hung-over revelers calling in sick on Monday!

    3. Thanks guys. It would be a great gift for all here (except that yellow dude that can’t stop hating on ‘Harbaw’..)

      1. Haha thanks. I have a strange sense of looseness about tomorrow. Normally I’m nervous as hell. Let’s do this!!!

  15. Great article, Grant.

    JH reminds me of Steve Jobs. A visionary. Team oriented. And finds a way to convince people that they can do what they previously thought was impossible.

    1. F Him! No more Napa-Sonoma wine for him. No Humboldt-Mendo-Sonoma seafood. No North Coast brews or fruits or nuts or veggies. Eat acorns mf! Hahah!

  16. Grant this is an excellent article. Articles like this are going to win you the 9er beat writer spot at the PD. I am very curious about your process, the tone of the articles you write for the paper seems very different than the tone of what you write for the blog alone. What I would like to know is do you write differently for the paper than the blog and if so what is the difference?

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