Commentary

Harbaugh, Schwartz just playing

Updated: October 18, 2011, 1:22 PM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

Jim Harbaugh has this line he uses all the time about "humble hearts." It's pretty multi-dimensional, used frequently to avoid a direct answer to a question, but most of the time he uses "humble hearts" as a qualifier, signifying how his team will continue to go about its business.

You know, with their hearts filled with humility.

[+] EnlargeJim Harbaugh
Michael Zagaris/Getty ImagesJim Harbaugh celebrates with the 49ers after the win.

After Sunday's running skirmish with Lions coach Jim Schwartz, you might have expected Harbaugh to leave that line at home when he answered questions at his Monday press conference. The 49ers coach was anything but humble in his dealings with Schwartz, who was anything but humble in return.

And yet, there was Harbaugh on Monday afternoon, wielding "humble hearts" like a rhetorical Swiss Army knife, using it so many times in so many places you had to figure even he rolled his eyes after he left the podium. This guy, as Jon Gruden might say, has got some cojones.

The underlying theme of the much-overplayed Harbaugh-Schwartz vaudeville routine is this: They're the same guy. They're both young, arrogant coaches who are as excitable and obnoxious as their young, arrogant players. Their acts might not play in the world of reverie, where nobody ever shows their emotions and Tom Landry sits in mute judgment of us all, but it damned well plays where it counts: in the Lions' and 49ers' locker rooms.

They care about absolutely nothing else. They're trying to change the culture, as the saying goes, and they've both found a way to do it. It's brash, it's combative, and it sure as hell isn't going to take any crap from anybody. If someone's hand gets shaken too hard and a back gets slapped in the process of making a point, tough luck.

After all, when we talk about culture in this case, we're not talking about the proper way to lift a canapé onto an hors d'oeuvres plate.

Harbaugh knew what he was doing. This wasn't a case of child-like exuberance or rookie-coach ignorance. He's been there before as a coach at Stanford with Pete Carroll and with half the league when he played in the NFL. His guerilla-handshake swim-move was a message, but it wasn't a message intended solely for Schwartz. It was intended for his players.

Harbaugh knew what was coming, too. He had to. He knows Schwartz like he knows the reflection in the mirror, and he knows Schwartz couldn't let that kind of behavior pass without a furious pursuit. After all, he had to send a message to his players, too.

The truth is, Schwartz is a cocky dude, too. He's good -- just like Harbaugh -- but he's cocky -- just like Harbaugh. The two qualities are inseparable. To get the Lions to believe in themselves enough to start 5-0, Schwartz couldn't approach his job like a systems analyst. He had to bounce around like a rooster and crow for the world to hear. So when he was approached by a Fox sideline reporter before the game -- but after the 49ers had won the toss but chosen to defer -- he had to let loose a devilishly crooked smile and tell everyone he thought they might be a little scared to start on offense. And when Harbaugh was penalized for attempting to challenge an un-challengeable play -- knowingly, he says -- Schwartz had to yell, "Know the rules, Harbaugh!" across the field often enough and in such a manner that even those with a minor in lip-reading had it down.

So, in the same way Harbaugh shouldn't have been surprised, Schwartz shouldn't have been, either. Reap what you sow and all that.

You can call it empty posturing, or you can call it silliness. Either works. Just don't clutch the rosary beads and wonder what to tell the children. Frankly, if the children are looking to Harbaugh and Schwartz for their sportsmanship cues, then something got lost long before now. (One national columnist suggested the two coaches be forced to perform community-service work in the form of a PSA on good sportsmanship. Yeah, nothing says repentance quite like a nationally televised lie.) Besides, I'm guessing most of us have seen worse at the local Little League field; I know I have. But only in the NFL could there be such a ridiculous outpouring of indignation over a handshake.

On the surface, the process seems pretty easy: You have a moment for a quick celebration when the game ends, then you compose yourself and approach the losing coach with the kind of sensitivity and sobriety that fits the moment. You slow down, shake hands, look the guy in the eye and say something along the lines of, "You guys did a great job. Best of luck the rest of the way."

You don't even have to mean it.

This changes when one of two things happens: 1) you need to let your players know you don't care about decorum, and neither should they; or 2) you don't believe the losing coach deserves either sensitivity or sobriety.

And if both a) and b) apply? Well, they have a phrase for that in the Harbaugh household, too. It's called a win-win.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote the autobiography of Pawn Stars' Rick Harrison. "License to Pawn: Deals, Steals, and my Life at the Gold & Silver" is available on Amazon.com. He also co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," also available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.

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Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com