Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NFL Nation [Print without images]

Monday, March 21, 2011
Football makes 49ers' Jim Harbaugh tick

By Mike Sando

NEW ORLEANS -- Jim Harbaugh had just finished explaining why he thought football was the greatest game when the giggling began.

We were 13 minutes into a 15-minute interview session tacked onto another long day for the San Francisco 49ers' new head coach. Harbaugh had traveled to New Orleans from a charity event in Lake Tahoe, Nev., and he was two days into his first NFL owners meeting.

"It is the greatest game ever invented," Harbaugh had said. "It works every muscle of your body. You go to bed and sleep good after you have played football. You don't think about anything else except scoring a touchdown or making a play when you are out there on the field. I love it."

Jim Harbaugh
It's clear from a conversation with Jim Harbaugh, who left Stanford to coach the 49ers, that he loves football.
Then came the giggling, which I figured was my cue, a 2-minute warning of sorts. Harbaugh had to be winding down. Hearing owners ramble on about labor relations and arcane rules changes would wear on any coach.

I glanced toward the 49ers' public-relations director and asked, lightheartedly, whether our 15-minute window had closed. There was no time for him to respond.

"It tests a man's courage," Harbaugh said.

At the time, I figured Harbaugh was joking about the courage it would take to extend him past the agreed-upon time limit. But after listening to a tape of our conversation, I realized Harbaugh was merely picking up where he had left off regarding his love for the game. He apparently hadn't noticed my little aside.

"You know, I could go on," Harbaugh said. "You start in the heat and go through a season that ends in the cold. The elements."

Now he was sounding more like an NFL Films narrative, without the dramatic intonations.

"Nothing makes you feel more like a man than when you defeat an opponent in the cold," Harbaugh went on. "Cold, bitter weather. Because now you have also not only beaten an opponent, but you conquered the elements as well. Hundreds of things I love about football."

There were times during our interview when Harbaugh ignored or did not see obvious cues, such as when I opened by asking what it's like to attend the NFL owners meeting as a first-time head coach. It had to be pretty cool.

"Well, it's informative," Harbaugh said. "It's been business-like. Business-like and informative. There is an agenda and people are packing it all in to, so far, a day and a half. There is no frills to this."

A computer could not have answered any more dryly.

Perhaps he had misunderstood. After settling into the job at the 49ers' headquarters, I noted, Harbaugh was now mingling with the other head coaches for the first time. I wondered whether the overall experience made his hiring as head coach sink in a little more. Has it been meaningful to him?

"It hasn't been nostalgic in any way," Harbaugh said. "It's really just trying to keep pace, learn and apply it to the task at hand."

Perhaps it's as simple as this: Football excites Harbaugh. The rest he endures.

Harbaugh's mind appeared to be running at all times. He tapped a pen on the end table next to him throughout the interview -- not rudely or to signal boredom, but more as though he were discharging excess energy. I counted 32 taps of the pen during one 11-second sequence.

Harbaugh is an equal-opportunity tapper. He tapped the pen when he spoke, too, including after I asked him about the importance of the tight end in his offense.

"In our philosophy, the tight end is a needed component because of the physical nature with which you want to play football," Harbaugh said.

His words became measured.

"The tight end. A fullback. Needed. Without those two positions, you tend more to be a finesse type of team."

Now he was rolling again.

"Especially if you can get a fullback, a man who lives a spartan life, who goes to bed and dreams about physical confrontation and getting from Point A to Point B to go hit somebody," Harbaugh said. "If you have that kind of face as your identity for your team, then you can play the kind of football that we are talking about."

Harbaugh traces his offensive lineage to Lindy Infante, who coached him as a player at Indianapolis, and Bill Walsh, who played a leading role in hiring him at Stanford and made famous the basic West Coast system Harbaugh is implementing with the 49ers.

Decades ago, critics slapped the "finesse" label on the West Coast system because it substituted short, precise passes for more manly running plays. The more offenses have gravitated toward three- and four-receiver personnel groupings in recent years, the more smash-mouth Walsh's approach appears by comparison. Harbaugh's background under Infante with Indianapolis and Bo Schembechler at Michigan are at play here. Infante worked under Marty Schottenheimer in Cleveland and Forrest Gregg in Cincinnati.

"It's a belief that the surest ways to win are if you can physically dominate an opponent, out-hustle them -- those are the surest ways to win," Harbaugh said.

Former 49ers coach Mike Singletary couldn't have said it better, but his background as a linebacker complicated efforts at implementation. With Harbaugh, the 49ers have a longtime former NFL quarterback with college head coaching experience and the proven ability to install a successful, creative offense.

"I feel that everything that has led up to this point where I am now -- playing, coaching, growing up with a dad who is a coach, a brother who is a coach, all that time, all those lessons, all that competition -- has prepared me for this one task, this one task of coaching the 49ers," Harbaugh said.

It's a huge challenge. The 49ers haven't been to the playoffs in nearly a decade. They won the last of their championships after the 1994 season.

Harbaugh won't be the only one giggling if he can turn them around.