Jim Harbaugh flirting with immortality
If he continues to win big, 49ers coach could go down as best of his generation
San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh has been so successful so quickly that it's time to start putting his brief career into perspective.
He's the first coach in NFL history to take his team to three straight conference championship games in his first three seasons. He put Stanford on a path to dominance that hasn't been seen at the school since Pop Warner was running the program.
Throw in Harbaugh's three-year run at the University of San Diego -- where he won 22 of his last 24 games -- and you should get the picture. We're looking at a man well on his way to being the greatest coach of the next generation.
Harbaugh's hot head-coaching career is all the more amazing because nobody saw him being this good this fast. If he can lead his 49ers past the Seattle Seahawks in this Sunday's NFC Championship Game, the buzz around him will only intensify.
San Francisco came within one incomplete Colin Kaepernick pass of beating Harbaugh's brother, John, and the Baltimore Ravens in last year's Super Bowl. A victory this time around would leave many people wondering if it's really possible for Jim Harbaugh to ever fail in this profession.
It's actually damn near impossible to find another coach in recent memory who compares to Harbaugh, at least when considering the places he's coached and the results he's achieved.
Bill Walsh won at Stanford -- a school notoriously hard to recruit at because of the difficulty of finding kids who meet its high academic standards -- but he never took his teams to the heights Harbaugh reached with that program. Walsh also won only eight games during his first two years with the 49ers before claiming the first of his three Super Bowl victories after the 1981 season. He then went 3-6 in 1982, a strike-shortened year.
Bill Belichick bombed in Cleveland before winning three Super Bowls in New England. Bill Parcells went 3-8 as Air Force's head coach in 1978 and didn't reach an NFL conference title game until his fourth season in the league. Chuck Noll had three straight losing seasons in Pittsburgh before the Steelers blossomed into a dynasty, while Tom Landry didn't post a winning record until his seventh season in Dallas.
There are other coaches whose careers started much faster -- including Vince Lombardi, Don Shula and Joe Gibbs -- but the list is not long.
Just as impressive is the job Harbaugh has done in three short years in San Francisco. People can say he walked into a treasure trove of talent, but Mike Singletary and Mike Nolan, his predecessors with the franchise, couldn't maximize that potential.
Harbaugh, on the other hand, went 13-3 in his first season and led his team to the NFC title game. He also took a shell-shocked quarterback named Alex Smith and turned him into a confident leader who could win games by playing to his strengths.
If that wasn't enough, Harbaugh came back in his second year and survived what could've been a potentially debilitating quarterback controversy. When he gave the starting job to Kaepernick midway through last season -- and benched Smith, who was leading the league in passing before he was sidelined with a concussion -- many people wondered if Harbaugh was making a major blunder. Those doubts vanished as soon as Kaepernick blossomed into a breakout star. They were a distant memory by the time the 49ers were meeting Baltimore in the Super Bowl.
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There should be no surprise that Harbaugh has his team on the verge of reaching the Super Bowl once again. He has a way of keeping a team focused regardless of the challenges facing it, which may be his greatest talent.
With all the drama the 49ers have endured this year -- from injuries to wide receiver Michael Crabtree and cornerback Chris Culliver to the rehab stint of Pro Bowl outside linebacker Aldon Smith -- San Francisco hasn't wilted under the pressure. If anything, the 49ers have grown stronger with each setback they've faced over the past five months.
What makes Harbaugh special is that he knows how to utilize that underdog nature better than anybody in the business. It's almost like it's second nature to him. The more the odds are stacked against him, the more he likes doing business under those circumstances. That's how he finds out what he's working with on his roster. It's also how his teams learn what they're dealing with in regard to him.
When Harbaugh went to the University of San Diego, even Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis tried to deter him from taking such a low-level job. Harbaugh had spent two years as the quarterbacks coach in Oakland before deciding that the time was right to take over USD in 2004.
When Davis warned Harbaugh that it was a step back to take over a program that was Division I-AA at the time -- especially when Harbaugh had made his name as an NFL quarterback for 14 seasons -- Harbaugh reminded Davis that he had taken a big risk by accepting a college coaching job early in his career. Davis famously reminded Harbaugh that the owner's big "risk" was going to USC as an assistant, not USD as the head coach.
What Davis couldn't see then was the same thing that attracts players to Harbaugh even now -- his complete lack of fear when it comes to pursuing a challenge. Harbaugh went to that unheralded program and won seven games in his first season. The Toreros followed that effort by enjoying back-to-back 11-win seasons and claiming two Pioneer League titles. All the while, Harbaugh gained a reputation for doing whatever it took to motivate his players, even if it meant running steep hills during offseason conditioning to inspire them.
Harbaugh had the same attitude at Stanford. That program had enjoyed eight winning seasons in 28 years before he arrived in 2007. Four years later, the Cardinal were 12-1, ranked fourth in the country and well on their way to being a national power. Current head coach David Shaw deserves plenty of credit for what Stanford has done lately, but it was Harbaugh who established the smashmouth style that defines that program today.
It's hard to imagine now all the ways Harbaugh's career could've played out differently just a few years back. He couldn't get the job at Temple in 2006 because Al Golden was a more attractive candidate. Many people believe he could've taken the Kansas job when the school fired Mark Mangino in 2009, but he passed on a program that has won nine games since that point. Harbaugh's career instincts proved to be sharp, as he led Stanford to the Orange Bowl during that 2009 season and then went right to the 49ers.
The major downer in Harbaugh's NFL career so far was that Super Bowl loss to his brother. When the Ravens walked away victorious, Harbaugh was still complaining about a holding call that he sorely wanted on a pass that Kaepernick intended for Crabtree.
It was a bittersweet moment for Harbaugh, as his goal of winning a championship died on the same night his older brother realized his own dream. But judging by what we've seen so far, that also won't be the last time Harbaugh has a chance to add another accomplishment to an already fast-growing legacy.