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Do You Speak Harbaugh? A Guide to Your 49ers Coach

Posted Feb 10, 2014

The coach who brings “an enthusiasm unknown to mankind” to the 49ers also brings a lexicon unknown to those unfamiliar with his speaking style.


The coach who said he would bring “an enthusiasm unknown to mankind” to the 49ers also brought a lexicon unknown to media. 

At least right away.

But Jim Harbaugh’s jargon can actually be pretty straightforward and succinct, even if he's coining a new phrase or borrowing one from favorites likes Ernest Hemingway, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Johnny Cash or Bo Schembechler, Winston Churchill and his dad, Jack Harbaugh, during his recurring press briefings.

About halfway through his season-ending meeting with reporters last month, Harbaugh followed the lead of his older brother, Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, and offered his thanks for their “professional” and “tough at times but fair but not divisive” coverage.

A veteran newspaper columnist responded: "Thank you, I’m sure we all appreciate that. And, I would add, you’ve improved. When you first started with us, you weren’t as confident or as forthcoming, and I think one of the reasons we’ve done better is because you’ve done better."

Harbaugh offered back: "I strive to improve. Improvement leads to success, success will lead to championships."

There you have it. Statements and the meaning and action behind those statements lead to 11- and 12-win seasons.

To ensure the message is getting across – and, let’s face it, to have a little bit of fun – 49ers.com cataloged Coach’s Harbaughisms since he took the helm and podium on Jan. 7, 2011.

Some are idioms, some are go-to mottos, and others are passed-down colloquialisms. All are aided by explanation.
 

Player's Due

Jim Harbaugh is always giving his players props. He called Lawrence Okoye “a beautiful man,” he called "Anquan Boldin a "pro's pro," and he's said his "teammates" have played with "gravel in their guts." He also often removes the subjects from his sentences, as if to say "We" is assumed, and always more important than "I." To steal from Schembechler, "the team, the team, the team."

A-plus-plus
"Just everything about him: talent, leadership, toughness, intelligence. Everything is A-plus-plus." – on Colin Kaepernick, Sept. 9, 2013

Arrow up
"Each week it's been arrow up, arrow up again. I like to see that continue - you know, arrow up in the preseason game. He's definitely got all the tools from a size, speed, athletic - what it takes to play in the National Football League. It means a lot to him to be good. You see him working extremely hard between drills getting extra coaching. He's got the tools but he's not a carpenter yet." – on cornerback Chris Culliver, Aug. 10, 2011

Block/Tackle
"As a coach, you are blocking and tackling nobody. Those are the guys that are laying it out on the line. And therefore they feel the greatest share of the satisfaction and the glory and the credit and the feeling. Coaching is definitely the next-best thing, so it’s wonderful. But playing’s the best." – Jan. 6, 2014

Contact Courage
"He has great contact courage. He likes to get from point 'A' to point 'B' and go hit somebody. He’s an effective tackler. And he’s a hard-hitting tackler." – on rookie safety Eric Reid, April 25, 2013

Error-repeater 
"It’s just the way he’s wired. He’s not an error-repeater. He takes great pride in his own personal performance and he’s really smart." – on Reid, Sept. 9, 2013

Mighty Men
"After a tough loss on the road, they responded – like mighty men." – on shutting out the St. Louis Rams, 26-0, to clinch the NFC West, Dec. 4, 2011

Trusted Agent
"He’s improved his technique, his base, in terms of pass protection, his knowledge of the scheme. There’s been a great improvement there. Great improvement in his vertical running, his insert between the tackle. Running, his returning, the way he catches punts and kickoffs now, you look at him as a trusted agent back there." – on reserve running back LaMichael James' adjustment to punt returning, Aug. 4, 2013


Material Matters

Harbaugh's garb has long become a point of fascination: the black sweater, the beige khakis and, as of this winter, a switch to cleats.

Armor
"I loved it, I loved the armor." – on wearing pads during his playing career in the wake of new NFL rules mandating players use of knee and thigh pads, July 22, 2013

Blue Collar
"I think their mindset will be what it’s always been. It’s a blue-collar mindset. And that involves fixing things, building things, sutures in our hands and the weapons are in our hands, our fate is in our hands and that’s our mindset." – on his team's attitude after its loss to the Carolina Panthers, Nov. 11, 2013

Callus
"Well, 'A,' I would say that you don’t strive to be fresh. You strive to be hardened, and a callus built up. 'B,' they’ve got this brand-new invention that’s made it really good for us, called the airplane." – on the team playing a third straight playoff game on the road, Jan. 17, 2013

Cutting (or Reducing) Drag
"Not to get into an argument about binders, or paper or iPads, but the biggest thing is video. You get the video on the iPads. These guys can walk around and download today’s practice and be watching it wherever they are – back at the hotel or sitting in the cafeteria eating or in the training room. It cuts drag." – on the team’s switch from hard-copy playbooks, Aug. 4 2013

The Rotation
"It’s in the rotation. There’s five or six of them that hang there and I grab one each day." – on his sweatshirt choice, Aug. 9, 2013

Superstitions
"I’ve been wearing the cleats because we’ve won every time I’ve worn the cleats. There was a time I was superstitious about not being superstitious. Now, I’m suddenly superstitious a little bit." – on his four-game winning streak with new footwear, Dec. 9, 2013


Press Pass

Harbaugh meets with print, online and broadcast reporters twice typically on game weeks, either in the media tent or the facility's defensive meeting room in order to accomodate San Francisco's press corps. Harbaugh has never pointed, what he has called, the "bony finger of blame."

Barney-style
"I’m sure there is. At this point, where we stand, we’re not trying to explain or answer those questions in detail. Keeping it simple. Take our best players, we’ll go to Green Bay, and see if we can beat their best players. I’m just boiling it down Barney-style for myself. We’ll take that approach and see if it works." – on if there's a reason his team has excelled on the road, Jan. 1, 2014

Carry the Water
"Do I think it was a penalty? No. That’s the way the rule’s written right now. Let somebody else carry the water on that from now on. One voice isn’t enough there." – on the cut block that ended nose tackle Ian Williams’ season, Sept. 16, 2013

Comparisons
"It doesn’t need to be compared with anything that happened previous years or with previous great players. I mean you’re talking about great players that accomplished great things. It’s great to be mentioned with that, but I think I could speak for Aldon, if I could for minute. Statistics aren’t what motivates him, it’s winning games." – on stacking Aldon Smith's season up with Michael Strahan's 22.5-sack season a decade earlier, Nov. 26, 2012

Content-to-word Ratio
"Sometimes, you get people talking and there’s a lot of low content-to-word ratio. Got to call that out, I guess." – Oct. 30, 2012

Contracts
"Well, until something further changes, which would have to be a principle in my mind that would completely change the way I think, I don’t ever talk about contracts publicly. If that principle changes, I will let you know." – on whether he would engage in extension discussions this offseason, Jan. 21, 2014

Erroneous, Erroneous
"Erroneous, erroneous. It's football. It's completion. It's winning." – on an upcoming Seattle Seahawks matchup, Jan. 15, 2014

Gobble, Gobble Turkey
"I think that's just a lot of gobble, gobble turkey. Just gobble, gobble, gobble turkey from jive turkey gobblers. I think that paints a pretty good picture." – Oct. 29, 2012

Getting Your Picture Made
"Yeah, as far as I know he likes to get his picture made, just like I do. That happens quite a bit, wherever he goes." – on the attention Kaepernick commanded during the offseason, July 22, 2013

Jobs
"I don’t talk about other people’s jobs. I don’t speak for other people, so that’s a double one right there you’re throwing at me. That’s a double-negative issue. I’ll let other people comment on their job status and other programs. Go through their process without interfering. That’s always kind of been a principle of mine." – on Jan. 8, 2014

Judge Judy
"What are we talking, hearsay here? Well, in Judge Judy’s court, hearsay is not admissible evidence. I think we can all agree that an unnamed source is hearsay. Would we not?" – Dec. 19, 2013

Low-hanging Fruit
"The way it turned out, that’s some low hanging fruit – ‘What the heck were they doing?’ Again, you learn from it. It feels like somebody just reached into your chest and stomach and started pulling the innards out without using any anesthesia. But all you can do is learn." – on Rams Jeff Fisher's remark regarding a failed 49ers pitch play, Dec. 5, 2012

Making Sport of
"They were making quite a bit of sport of me, but problem solved there. The Levi's® and the Nike and the Dickies makes a flat khaki, so happy wife, happy life. As far as tucking in the shirt, though, if I'm the last person that tucks in their shirt, that will be great. I will feel like an innovator." – on the radio coverage of his attire, Jan. 15, 2014

No Malice Intended
"There was no malice in the way our media handled the season, and I appreciate that." – Jan. 21, 2014

Peel Back the Onion
"I’m sure we could get into a long discussion about it, or peal back the onion layer by layer. But, good football players, good team." – on his team's poise after three road wins in three weeks, Jan. 13, 2014

Plowed That Ground
"We plowed that ground pretty thoroughly two days ago. You know how I feel about our assistant coaches that are here. I could think of all the head jobs that are out there and those teams would be lucky to have Greg Roman or any of our other assistants that I named the other day." – Jan. 8, 2014

Quote on That
"I think you have my quote on that. We’re going to take our best players and see if we can go beat their best players." – on his team's adaptability to frigid weather, Jan. 1, 2014

Salvo
"We’re not here today to throw any salvos. There’s not going to be any salvos coming out of the West Coast." – on chatter through the media, Oct. 11, 2011

Scheme
"I don’t talk about scheme, but it’s always evolving. That’s one thing that seems like a constant in football, that you must evolve. You have a plan, the opposition has a plan, those two plans meet and then you have to adjust. That’s every game. That’s every season." – on whether the NFL has adjusted to defending run-first, read-option quarterbacks, Aug. 23, 2013


Competitive Nature

It seems to come naturally to this coach. The morning after his team's Wild Card win over the Packers last month, Harbaugh offered, "To beat the elements, to beat the opposing team, to beat the opposing crowd, just nothing quite makes you feel like a man like that, that I’ve found."

Ask No Quarter, Give No Quarter
"Certainly not aware of any gentleman’s agreement. Even asked my brother, ‘Is there some kind of gentleman’s agreement that you call a coach before a preseason game?’ And he wasn’t aware of any. Even if there was, we wouldn’t do it anyway. We ask no quarter, we give no quarter, and that’s how we approach things." – on whether his lack of pregame communication with the New Orleans Saints resulted in the Saints incessant blitzing, Jan. 9, 2012 

By any Means Necessay
"Our play is very team-oriented play. It’s very concentrated on win the game by any means necessary." – on Dec. 21, 2013

Football Fight
"That's a football fight that we know is coming." – on the rematch with the Packers on Opening Day 2013, Sept. 3, 2013 

Iron Sharpens Iron
"They’ve talked about it this offseason, a lot of the fellas in the secondary. I know our offensive players feel the same way about a lot of the players that we have on defense. And iron sharpening iron is a good thing, become straight, become sharp." – on wide receiver Randy Moss helping the team in practice, Aug. 16, 2012 

Just Win, Baby
"I was a young assistant coach, when I first started coaching, for Mr. Al Davis. And I didn’t understand how profound the statement ‘Just win, baby’ was, even when I was there. I thought I knew, but I didn’t know to the extent that I know now. Just win, baby." – quoting the late Oakland Raiders owner, Jan. 13, 2014

Knee to Knee, Eye Ball to Ball
"Things that we’re looking for as a head coach – it’s the opportunity to get knee to knee and eyeball to eyeball with these guys and, in some instances, it may only 15 minutes, other instances it may only be five minutes, but that’s valuable time. And then also to watch them compete in drills, see how they compete, see what their energy level is, see how they go about their business and evaluating as much as you possibly can." – on gauging players at the NFL Combine, Feb. 24, 2011

Like an Elephant
"I have a memory like an elephant. I never forget." – on how running back LaMichael James and Oregon beat Harbaugh and Stanford when both were in the college ranks, April 27, 2012

Real Real
"It's going to get real real, and it's going to get real real, real fast these young guys." – on his team's new crop of draftees, April 27, 2012

Scorched-earth Plan
"It’s going to be a scorched-earth plan of teaching and coaching when this gets started and I’m happy that the players organized those workouts and the initiative to learn and to understand." – on coming back from the league-wide lockout, July 25, 2011 


Overcoming Injury

When inevitably asked about his players' inevitable ailments, Harbaugh has yielded to the player and the team's medical staff. "I'm not in his body" and "I'm not a doctor," he's said on more than one occasion.

Dodged a Bullet There
"Yeah, definitely I was holding my breath a little bit. But he’s a football player making a play, reacting. Dodged a bullet, would be my thought now. I’m glad we did. Dodge bullets. Make plays and dodge bullets." – on Colin Kaepernick tackling his interceptor in Green Bay, Jan. 8, 2014

Football Player
"Did (anyone) tell Michael Jordan not to take off from the free-throw line? I doubt Phil Jackson ever had that conversation. These guys are pro football players. They do what they do. In some cases, they do only what they can do. It’s why we love watching them compete on Sundays." – on whether he'd spoken to tight end Vernon Davis about the risks of hurdling defenders in the open field, Dec. 2, 2013

God Willing and the Creek Don't Rise
"Do I know that he will? God willing and the creek don’t rise, he’s going to play." – on defensive tackle Justin Smith's availability to play in a divisional round playoff game against the Packers, Jan. 9, 2013

Hot Blood
"The heart rate ramps up, the hot blood races to the arteries, to the vessels, to the capillaries, and there distributed to the fingers and the toes. In an athlete, the age and the health of these guys, that hot blood will be racing around." – on how his players would play in Green Bay's near-zero temperatures, Jan. 3, 2014

Walk It off
"We'll see the next couple days, but it appears he was able to walk that off." – on left tackle Joe Staley's potential injury, Sept. 27, 2013

Working through Something
"He was working through something." – on injured tight end Vance McDonald’s availability for a preseason game, Aug. 21, 2013

Steel in Our Spine
"Adversity? Yes, we’ve got that. I always look at that as an opportunity to show the steel in the spine, so that’s what we’re going to have to do. Look forward to that challenge." – Nov. 18, 2013


Talking Sports

In the fall of 2011, and during a press conference in which he pronounced himself "moody and complicated," Harbaugh revealed his boyhood aspiration to be a Major League shortstop. No wonder there's a baseball feel to some of his favorite terminology.

Five-tool Linebacker
"He’s like Pat. He’s that good. He’s a five tool linebacker himself in ability to run and hit and blitz and his timing, his tempo and his coverage. And he does it on special teams as well. So, football player." – on NaVorro Bowman, Nov. 21, 2012

Look Team
"A lot of guys, Colt (McCoy's) doing a good job. Chuck Jacobs’ doing a real nice job. Tight ends have really been good. There’s been a lot of effort with the look teams, especially the offensive look teams, they’ve been really hustling." – on the efforts of his scout team, Oct. 7, 2013

Pitch-count
"We have a pitch-count with the starters. It'll be somewhere around plays in the 20s." – on his veterans' playing time before the coach's preseason debut, Aug. 11, 2011

The Opportunity (or Developmental) Squad
"Having McLeod (Bethel-Thompson) on the opportunity squad is a good place for us. We feel like we have three (on the roster). I feel like we have three. Feel good about it." –  Nov. 29, 2013


Talking Sports?

Metaphors, similies – they have their place in football.

Gist of a Bird
"He’s got a competitive heart. I had that feeling about him. Just see it. Just see it... I don’t know how to explain it. It’s just something that you see. I guess a bird watcher knows the gist of a bird by just watching it fly. I feel like sometimes I got an eye for a competitive heart. I see it. I see it with Jon" – on the 'it factor' of wideout Jon Baldwin, Sept. 27, 2013

Everywhere, Man
"Our team’s been in a lot of good primers, been through a lot of situations, been through tough environments, whether it be weather or opposing stadiums. Been everywhere, man. Like the Johnny Cash song... We’ve been everywhere, man. Been to Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota, Buffalo, Toronto." – on the team's on-the-road ways, Jan. 13 and 15, 2014

Happier than a Pig in Slop
"Happy. Happy. Great thrill of winning. Wonderful feeling of victory. I was, and still am, happier than a pig in slop." – on his frame of mind less than 24 hours after the team's Week 16, Candlestick Park-closing victory, Dec. 24, 2013

The Olive Jar
"We’ve been kind of down on getting turnovers and sometimes things just kind of start breaking right for you. Kind of like the olive jar. Everybody’s familiar with the olive jar. You open it up and a brand new can of olives and turn it over and no olives come out. They’re packed in there so darn tight, but if you just get one to come out, just pluck one out of there and then they want to come out, they’re just flying out of the jar. So hopefully that’s the case for us defensively." – Oct. 7, 2013

Two-dollar Steak
"He's as tough as a two-dollar steak.” – on the fortitude of Alex Smith, Sept. 16, 2012


Never Satisfied

In the winter of 2012, Harbaugh was asked about the work ethic of Kaepernick, who had recently taken over as San Fransico's top signal-caller. The coach responded, "You can’t get to Carnegie Hall without practice."

Comfortable
"Comfortable is not one of those words – it’s kind of confusing." – on a reporter's use of the word, July 28, 2013

Defeated
"A man can be destroyed, but he can't be defeated." – quoting Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea" after the team's NFC title game defeat, Jan. 19, 2014

Flowery Words of Praise
"Energy is energy. There’s positive energy, there’s negative energy. Sometimes a person can get more energy from negative energy. Sometimes that can be a gift: 'Thank you very much.' As long as all that’s written is said against us then you feel a certain assurance of success. People are heaping flowery words of praise upon you, then you feel exposed before your enemies. I’m just quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson there." – Sept. 27, 2013

Freddy P. Soft
"No, we’ve seen no evidence of that. We will be quick and on alert for any signs or evidence. There’s a guy that walks around by the name of Frederick P. Soft. Freddy Soft’s about a four-inch guy that sits on your shoulder, talks right into your ears. If we see or hear any evidence of him being in premises we will act quickly and decisively and get him out of here." – on whether his team, by winning, was becoming "soft," Oct. 12, 2011 

Hay's Never Really in the Barn
"Another workout, another practice tomorrow and then travel up there, more meetings. Hay’s never really in the barn. But where we stand right now, we feel good." – on pregame prep, Sept. 13, 2013

Humble Hearts
"It was rough, hard football. And we’re very fortunate to prevail. We’ll move on with this with humble hearts, and keep going." – on the 49ers hotly-contested win over the Detroit Lions, Oct. 17, 2011 

Mile Per Hour Faster
"It’s a situational game in some aspects, and thought we could get a mile an hour faster getting a scoreboard in here. I feel great about a lot of the additions that ownership has given to our compound here. Everything, as football coaches, we’ve asked for they’ve given us, from the Forty Niner Way, to the sign, to the weight room, to the speakers, to the nice fence and the padding around the grass fields and now a scoreboard." – on adding a practice field scoreboard, Aug. 7, 2013

Only as Good
"You're only as good as your last four quarters of football." – on his team's successes, Jan. 6, 2014

Who's Got It Better
"There’s just a little saying around the house that my dad would always use that was, ‘Who’s got it better than us?’ and we’d all respond ‘No-body’. We could be driving in the car or whatever we were doing; he’d say it and we’d respond, ‘No-body,’ and we really thought that. We didn’t think there was anybody else that could possibly have it better than us.

"Then as you get older you realize that other people do have it better than you do. Like, in the case of our house (on Talwrn Court in Iowa City), it was a really small house. I had a chance to go back there and look at it when I was scouting players at the University of Iowa, and it’s like two bedrooms, three kids, mom and a dad, living room, kitchen, all was the same. I don’t know how many square feet it was, but I just looked at it and thought, ‘This is the smallest house I think I’ve ever seen.’

"But we didn’t think so as kids. My dad would say, ‘Isn’t this great, you and your brother get to share the room. You can talk philosophy, you can share each other’s dreams. Who could possibly have it better than you two guys?’ So we thought, ‘No-body!’ That was kind of the idea. Sometimes you’d walk out of the house and there’d be a car there and sometimes there wouldn’t. When there wasn’t, ‘Hey, we’re walking today. Get the basketball and start dribbling it.’

"As you look back on it, I think the message there was that not having things handed to you, things that don’t come easy are really the blessing because you have to overcome some things. And, if it’s harder, then it makes you better in the long run. I told them that I really wanted to be a Major League shortstop growing up. I had a glove. I had baseball diamonds to play on. Kids down in the Dominican Republic were making gloves out of milk cartons. I didn’t stand a chance to be a Major League shortstop. Those guys had to overcome so much more that made them better players in the long run.

"So we just try to find ways to make it harder on ourselves. How can we make things suck more?" – Oct. 3. 2011


Your Turn

Have a Favorite Harbaughism?
Let us know in the comment section below.

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