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I have been privy to the sublime weirdness of Jim Harbaugh for longer than most.
I covered the later stages of his playing career, and after one particularly scrappy, gutsy performance at quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, Harbaugh and I chatted at his locker inside Arrowhead Stadium. Near the end of our talk, Harbaugh, dressed in a slick business suit, began to put on his wingtips when he realized he had only one dress sock in his locker. He shrugged his shoulders, grabbed one of his dirty white uniform socks, laced up his dress shoes and walked to the team bus without a care in the world -- one white sock and one black sock exposed under each cuff with every step he took.
This is not someone who spends a lot of time worrying how he appears in public. And so, as you might guess, Harbaugh's crazed, emotional, hilarious and increasingly over-the-top behavior on the San Francisco 49ers sidelines the past three seasons has not come as all that great a surprise to me.
Judging by his performance last week in Carolina, as well as his ongoing and escalating rivalry with Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, we're in for a treat this weekend during the 49ers' third straight NFC Championship Game.
To prepare and provide proper perspective for whatever Harbaugh has planned for the 12th Man at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, I thought it would be fun, and educational, to examine his top 10 sideline meltdowns.
Or, as I like to call them, the GIFs that keep on GIFing.
We start the list in Week 1 of the 2011 season with Harbaugh's NFL coaching debut. This was Game 1 of what is now the NFL's biggest, nastiest rivalry (sorry, Steelers-Ravens), but it also gives us some perspective for the rest of the list. After a solid 15-year NFL career, Harbaugh enjoyed a meteoric rise through the coaching ranks. He started as a volunteer on his father Jack's staff at Western Kentucky in 2001, then moved to the University of San Diego and then Stanford before taking over the 49ers in 2011.
In Harbaugh's pro head-coaching debut, after a 49ers punt appeared to have touched Seattle's Leon Washington, the new coach seemed to possess the perfect mix of enthusiasm, intelligence and respect for his position on the sidelines. "He touched it! Get on it! That's our ball!" Harbaugh screamed before taking off down the sideline, gesturing wildly to the end zone while barking "Go!" eight times in a row. And then -- get this -- calm and thoughtful as a college professor, Harbaugh stands with his hands on his hips, right next to a referee while listening to the challenge ruling, wondering out loud, submissively, "Inconclusive, I bet." As he predicted, the 49ers do lose the challenge. Harbaugh looks right at the ref, doesn't say a single word, adjusts his headset, folds his arms and walks away.
Looking at this now, in retrospect, it doesn't even seem like the same guy.
This proves that, deep down inside, Harbaugh knows exactly how to behave, and it also calls into question the usefulness of his tantrums.
The 49ers, after all, went on to win 33-17.
"Now is when football's fun," Harbaugh yells at the end of the game.
|You won't like Jim Harbaugh when he's angry, especially if you're a referee.|
Well, that escalated quickly. A year later, just 10 minutes into the 49ers' season opener in Green Bay, Harbaugh dropped one of his all-time great sideline GIFs on replacement refs who must still be having nightmares of the crazed coach. What could those poor saps have done in 10 short minutes to make him this angry? Who knows?
But suddenly, without warning -- just like the Hulk himself -- Harbaugh turns his back to the field and punches his right arm into the air, violently. The veins in his neck bulge. His face goes crimson. His eyebrows snap into a V. He bares his teeth like a cornered wolverine, exposing a tiny bit of dry spittle in the crease of his mouth that serves as your only warning that a massive geyser of saliva is about to come shooting out of his mouth -- not once, not twice but three times, as the rabid foam and froth covers his trademark black sweatshirt. And then, just when you think it's over, like a super slow-motion scene from a crash-test video, the inertia from his Hulk transformation sends his dorky pen on a lanyard up over his shoulder and into the air, where it seems to float forever, released from the earth's gravity by the sheer force of Harbaugh's Hulk-like transformation.
Six weeks later in Seattle, when a forward progress call negates a possible Marshawn Lynch fumble, Harbaugh will give this crazy-eye-bulging face a run for its money.
But what makes this one stand out is the critical game situation when it occurred: The 49ers were ahead of Green Bay 3-0.
On Sunday, while protesting a roughing-the-passer call late in the divisional playoff game in Carolina, Harbaugh at first appears restricted by the play sheet and headphones he's holding in his left hand. Instead, he adroitly transfers all his rage to his free arm, throwing his right hand and elbow violently into the air in a tugging motion similar to someone starting a cold, stubborn lawnmower. Rather than fight the centrifugal force created, Harbaugh just goes with it and ends up performing a fantastic, tight, balanced twirl worthy of an Olympic figure skater. One brilliant GIF-maker on the Internets immediately enhanced this one by adding a flash of light and, in mid-spin, transforming Harbaugh into a Wonder Woman costume.
Ya know, when Harbaugh was younger and his dad, a highly respected coach in his own right, encouraged his son to develop an "enthusiasm unknown to mankind," I highly doubt this is what he had in mind.
In 2011, after the 49ers beat the Lions 25-19 to start 5-1 for the first time in 13 seasons, then-Lions coach Jim Schwartz went after Harbaugh after what he perceived to be a condescending back slap during their handshake at midfield. Anyone who has ever gotten one of these from their father-in-law understands exactly why Schwartz attacked Harbaugh. But by focusing exclusively on the handshake and the aftermath -- especially in light of Harbaugh's classic 2009 postgame "What's your deal?" run-in with archnemesis Carroll -- you're missing out on the real crazy.
As time runs out, Harbaugh takes off on a full sprint toward midfield, and then, about halfway there -- like a toddler having a tantrum trying to extricate himself from his tight, itchy church clothes -- the coach inextricably untucks his black sweatshirt and exposes his bare belly like a spring breaker looking to score Mardi Gras beads. The gesture, I guess, is in preparation for a celebratory chest bump with guard Alex Boone that, of course, goes horribly wrong and ends up with Harbaugh grabbing Boone by the breasts.
Harbaugh lands, shoots his hands up in the air triumphantly, pumps his fist, takes three giant leaping strides toward midfield and then slaps Schwartz on the back as if the Lions coach is choking on a Coney Island hot dog.
|Harbaugh and Jim Schwartz, far right, had to be separated after their 2011 matchup.|
It's 14-14 about halfway through the second quarter of the 49ers' January 2013 playoff game against Green Bay when Harbaugh breaks out into a perfectly choreographed Riverdance fit by pumping his right fist and stomping his right foot at the exact same time.
Is he done? Maybe he's done? Please.
While moonwalking backward, he pumps his fist again (twice) and stomps his right foot again (twice) -- only this time, he adds a little extra fancy mule-kick sauce on the side while barking out in perfectly synchronized protest: "Aw" (pump) "that's" (stomp) "bull" (stomp) "s---" (pump).
When Patrick Willis once said that Harbaugh is "crazy … but a good crazy," this is what he meant.
The 49ers were up 24-0 against the Titans in Week 7 of the 2013 season when Harbaugh growls, points at the giant video screen, tugs on his sweatshirt and chases a ref down the sidelines screaming "He got held! Was it you? You? You blew that call!" All things considered, pretty standard stuff, right?
|Harbaugh hasn't limited his altercations to opposing coaches. "It was good to be in the fray," he said about getting caught between scuffling players.|
What's significant about this one is that in the background you can see no less than 10 members of the 49ers organization -- from assistant coaches, to players, to trainers and even an older gentleman in a suit nervously pretending to look the other way while fixing his hair -- all with the same embarrassed, irritated, apologetic "geez Coach, let it go" look on their faces as they watch Harbaugh lose it.
This should have been a warning to the coach that when you freak out about every little call that doesn't go your way for the better part of three seasons, sooner or later, people start to tune you out, even on your own sideline.
Then, with 6:40 left in the game, Harbaugh tries to break up a sideline donnybrook between 49ers tackle Joe Staley and Titans safety Bernard Pollard by, I guess, trying to shield Pollard's eyes with his play-call sheet. When that doesn't work -- give Harbaugh credit -- the old QB sticks his nose right into the scuffle, getting cleated in the process (this is why he now wears black cleats on the sidelines).
Two days later on Bay Area radio station KNBR's "Murph and Mac," Harbaugh offered up perhaps the best insight yet as to his mentality on the sideline. Sounding a bit like Rambo, he said, "It was good to be in the fray. It felt good. Got stepped on, got cleated in the foot. That felt good, too. Walked that off, though. It felt good to get cleated again. It's been over a decade since I've gotten stepped on and cleated. Gave me something to walk off. Kinda felt good, to be honest with you."
For many, this will be the final memory from Candlestick Park: With the 49ers up 34-24 with :05 to play, Harbaugh is 15 yards onto the field standing with his hand in the face of referee Walt Coleman, yelling, protesting, begging. For what? Nobody knows. And then, as if it suddenly hits him what he's doing, Harbaugh folds his arms across his chest, takes three steps back and then sinks his forehead into the palm of his right hand.
I happen to think the "San Fran sigh" is one of Harbaugh's underappreciated sideline gestures, but if you think this means he's defeated or embarrassed or conceding even an inch, well, you don't know Harbaugh very well. He's absolutely gob-smacked, but not so much by the perceived officiating error as by a cruel, imperfect world that would so easily tolerate such mediocrity.
Let's start this one by saying that Harbaugh was right: The refs blew the call.
In Carolina last week, refs declared Vernon Davis to be out of bounds, negating a critical touchdown for the 49ers. Protesting the call, Harbaugh raced out close to midfield, yelling at the ref while pointing at the video board. The 49ers' own Anquan Boldin yelled at Harbaugh to chill out and get off the field, but it was too late. He had already gotten a 15-yard penalty -- discipline for his outbursts that many feel was a long time coming.
"I think Harbaugh gets away with murder myself," former Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren told the AP.
Woody Hayes got away with murder on the sideline. Bobby Knight got away with murder on the sideline. Harbaugh's harmless. For the most part.
|Harbaugh wasn't asking for a hug when he approached a ref during last week's playoff game.|
Take your pick.
There's the skipping, screaming whirlybird during the 49ers' kick return.
The arm-flailing, play card-chucking, mating dance of the rabid crane after a call went the wrong way.
And, my personal favorite, the endless loop of his haunting, convulsing, mouth-agape, sorrowful pleading for a holding call that will never, ever come after the 49ers' final shot at the end zone in Super Bowl XLVII.
It's like something out of an Edvard Munch nightmare.
I'd argue that this isn't just Harbaugh's best work on the sidelines but, perhaps, the greatest coach reaction in sports hysteria history. Harbaugh's masterpiece has everything: emotion, screaming, bouncing, kicking, punching, twirling and play card chucking. I mean, it's so mesmerizing that even the refs flanking Harbaugh don't know whether to giggle, soothe him or call for a straitjacket.
And just to make it even more awesome, some versions of the video include a voiceover of some kid screaming, "I want cake!"
|Harbaugh's patented look of disbelief. Just enjoy it.|
(Warning: Before we go any further, if you plan on watching this clip, please make sure all of your affairs are in order and that a loved one or a responsible third party knows where you are and how to perform an emergency shutdown of your computer. And please make sure you have nothing important to do between the 45 minutes to 72 hours from now, because once it starts, trust me, you will have trouble extricating yourself. I started this column in October. Save yourself.)
During last season's NFC Championship Game in Atlanta, Harbaugh challenged a third-down catch by Harry Douglas. Replays did show the ball hitting the turf and that it was moving, ever so slightly, as the catch was completed, but officials didn't believe there was enough evidence there to overturn the call on the field.
In case you were wondering, Harbaugh disagreed.
He did so first with his eyes squeezed shut and right hand, fingers spread, raised above his head with what can only be described as true Pentecostal fervor. At this point, he seems to levitate off the turf while appealing to some kind of higher authority. When that doesn't work, he folds himself in half, collapsing toward the ground in full toddler-meltdown form. Just when you think he's going for the full fetal position, like a dynamited building, his headphones fall off his head, he throws his play card to the ground and flails his right leg out like an angry bull in a ring. At this point, the 49ers sideline looks like a garage sale with so many items strewn about. Then, without warning, he bolts upright again, shaking both hands down as if he'd landed in a gas-station restroom with no towels.
Here, both officials step forward to try and comfort Harbaugh, but -- silly zebras -- he's not even halfway done. He spins hard, clockwise, 180 degrees, using his right hand to quickly adjust himself in his tirade. (That's just next level, right there. Do not even try this at home; you'll hurt yourself.) He rejects the ref's sympathetic open-hand gesture of support by whipping that same right hand away as if catching it on a hot stove, avoiding the other ref's groin -- and near catastrophe, along with a hefty fine -- by mere inches, before stomping back to the 49ers sideline.
This is Harbaugh's masterpiece.
Brutal but balletic. Quick but memorable. Spontaneous but rhythmic. It is stunning in its energy, explosiveness and emotion, and it leaves you -- even after 10,000 views -- with both a lingering sense of joy and dread as we head into championship game weekend.
I have no idea how Harbaugh is going to top himself in Seattle.
But I can't wait to find out.