NEW ORLEANS – Jim Harbaugh didn’t intend to “peel back the onion” this week at his Super Bowl XLVII media obligations.
But there he was Monday afternoon, doing just that. The San Francisco 49ers head coach shared insight on the three biggest influences on his coaching career, a conversation that was sparked by a question about what else, tight ends.
Harbaugh, San Francisco’s second-year coach and a former 15-year NFL veteran quarterback, cited his father Jack Harbaugh as well as tenured Big Ten coaches Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes as his top three coaching influences.
Schembechler’s name was brought up when Harbaugh recalled how he broke the news of receiving his first head coaching job with his long-time mentor.
In discussing Schembechler, Harbaugh’s college coach at the University of Michigan, the 49ers coach even changed his voice to impersonate the respected coach. Harbaugh helped lead the Wolverines to two bowl appearances and also won conference player of the year honors.
Harbaugh still carries Schembechler’s wisdom at all times. A sign in the team meeting room reads, “The team, the team, the team,” – a saying passed on from his respected coach.
Back to the tight ends for a second.
Asked about the 49ers increased utilization of tight ends in Harbaugh’s two seasons in San Francisco, the energetic coach said it was a principle of his offensive attack.
“We’ve always believed in that, the tight end, the fullback,” Harbaugh explained.
Then came the impersonation.
“When I got my first coaching job at the University of San Diego I called my coach, Bo Schembechler and told him I was head coach at the University of San Diego,” Harbaugh began before he adjusted the tone of his voice to reflect the elder coach.
“Before he said ‘congratulations’ or anything he said, ‘Jimmy, tell me you’re going to have a tight end that puts his hand in the ground on every snap. Tell me that you will have a fullback that lines directly behind the quarterback and a halfback in the I-formation.’”
Harbaugh simply replied, “‘Yes coach, we will have that.’”
To which Schembechler said, “‘Good. Congratulations on getting the job.’”
Keeping Schembechler’s wishes close to heart, Harbaugh relied on tight ends and fullbacks throughout his years coaching at USD and later at the Stanford University. There, Harbaugh hired offensive coordinator Greg Roman, a versatile coach with experience on both sides of the ball.
The move turned out to be a tremendous decision in Harbaugh’s estimation. That’s exactly why he brought Roman to run San Francisco’s offense.
“Greg Roman is the best,” Harbaugh said. “He’s the best coordinator in football, I really believe that. Innovative. I believe he’s changed a lot about football this season in terms of bringing the traps back to football, bringing the counter back to football, bringing wham plays back into football. Some of the formations that we use, back into football.”
That’s right, traps, counters and whams have been utilized about as much as the much discussed “Pistol” formation the team has utilized with second-year quarterback
With so many options in the running game, the 49ers rank first in the NFL with 472 rushing yards this postseason. San Francisco did it in just two games while averaging a league-best 6.6 yards per carry and seven touchdown runs in the playoffs. In two playoff games, San Francsico has averaged 236.0 yards per game.
The offensive linemen have no problem carrying out modern running schemes or diving back into the archives to execute running plays that have lived in the 49ers West Coast Offense over the years.
“You have to be athletic,” explained right guard
The same can be said for the fullback. Although Schembechler might not recognize all the ways the 49ers utilize
“I think how multiple that we are, I get to do a lot of different things and not just hitting guys,” explained Miller, a converted defensive end in college. “I get to move around and block and get in different schemes. I love it. I love playing in this offense… We all take a lot of pride in being intelligent football players. The more they can give us, the more we can do and we take a lot of pride in that.”
Boone and the other offensive linemen take pride in being able to carry out any running play called by Roman. Although, at first, Boone couldn’t help but marvel over running trap plays.
“When we call traps and stuff, I think to myself, ‘when was the last time we ran a trap, high school?’” Boone joked. “We never really ran them in college but I think that’s what makes G-Ro so great. He understands football to another level. He understands when things will work and when they’ll be good.
“That’s what makes him the best offensive coordinator.”
Boone noted that running a trap is difficult because of a defensive lineman’s ability to recognize when they’re being purposely unblocked.
Should the 49ers elect to challenge the interior lineman in Baltimore’s defensive line, San Francisco will have its hands full with standout nose tackle Haloti Ngata and the number of defenders the Ravens utilize in the front-seven.
“They’ve got talented players who rotate in there,” Harbaugh said. “It’ll be a good task, a good challenge for us.”
The 49ers didn’t utilize a zone-read scheme when the Harbaugh brothers first faced each other last year on Thanksgiving night.
The new wrinkle to San Francisco’s offense could provide a challenge to Baltimore’s respected run defense. The Ravens have yet to face a dual-threat signal-caller in the postseason; their wins were over pocket-passers Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
With Roman’s schemes and the 49ers talented personnel, Kaepernick’s running ability could steal the show. After posting a league-record 181 rushing yards by a quarterback in a single game against the Packers, Kaepernick rushed just twice in San Francisco’s NFC title game victory.
If the 49ers elect to utilize more “Pistol” formations at Super Bowl XLVII, Harbaugh is confident those plays will be successful as a key part of Roman’s offensive attack.
“Colin Kaepernick is extremely gifted in that part of the game,” Harbaugh said.
If only we could hear Schembecler’s thoughts on old-school running principles being sprinkled in with new-age running concepts.