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 firstname.lastname@example.org.