As a former five-time NFL Executive of the Year, Bill Polian knows talent when he sees it.
That includes coaches, too.
Polian, a respected former executive who spent 22 seasons with Buffalo, Carolina and Indianapolis, has always admired the energy, commitment and leadership from San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh.
In December of 1997, Polian was hired by the Colts to resurrect a 3-13 team that had reached the AFC title game one year prior with Harbaugh as the starting quarterback. Polian appreciated everything the veteran quarterback had done for the Colts and the city of Indianapolis, but decided to part ways with Harbaugh before drafting Peyton Manning with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1998 NFL Draft.
Despite the decision, there’s no hard feelings between the two men who spent time conversing this past week at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine. Harbaugh is still revered in the town where he’s one of nine members of Indianapolis’ ring of honor at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Furthermore, Harbaugh hired Polian’s son Brian as his special teams coordinator at Stanford in 2010, a post he held for three seasons before being named as Nevada’s head coach this offseason.
Polian, 70, now working as an analyst for ESPN, still marvels over the leadership and football acumen shown by the 49ers head coach who played 15 seasons in the NFL.
What does Polian think of Harbaugh’s first two seasons with the 49ers?
“Nothing short of spectacular,” the Super Bowl-winning talent evaluator said at the combine.
“He took a team that had been out of the playoffs and really was sort of adrift, and in two seasons took them to the Super Bowl. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
From Polian’s unique perspective, he still sees the same leader in Harbaugh that brought the Colts one game from the Super Bowl in 1996.
“His energy, his commitment, his ability to connect with players is as good as there is in this game,” Polian said.
Although the two never had the chance to work on the same team in the NFL, Polian took immense pride when his son was hired by Harbaugh to coordinate special teams in 2010.
There, Polian witnessed the same character he saw in the NFL for so many years.
“I’ve said from day one when I met him here as a player here in Indianapolis and then watching him and having my son on his staff at Stanford,” Polian began, “he brings added value. He’s not just a coach, he brings energy, excitement, commitment, sincerity and he motivates.”
In Polian’s mind, the inspiration Harbaugh provides separates him from others in the profession.
“Motivation is a hackneyed word, but he gives a team that extra spark that’s necessary to win,” Polian said. “He’s a leader, a born leader. He does it his way and that’s perfectly fine.”
Harbaugh has plastered the walls at 49ers headquarters with motivational quotes that stem from his experiences at the University of Michigan playing for legendary coach Bo Schembechler. Harbaugh has also notably given out blue-collar work shirts to members of the team, a reminder of the effort needed to succeed in the NFL.
Harbaugh led the 49ers to a Super Bowl appearance in his second season. The game also saw the energetic coach display the behavior that endears him to his players. At times, Harbaugh left the coaching box to call timeouts and discuss calls with officials.
In the aftermath of the game, the NFL will enforce a rule that prohibits coaches from leaving the coaching box.
At the combine, Harbaugh said he was fine with it.
“That’s the way it’s been,” the 49ers coach said. “If they say, ‘Don’t step out on the field,’ you don’t step out on the field.”
Polian, too, has heard the conversation about the coaching box etiquette and offered a priceless critique.
“So what?” Polian said.
“I’ve heard people talk about his sideline demeanor, I’ll tell you this, the only people who care about his sideline demeanor are the guys in the red jerseys and they care a lot about him.”
In Polian’s mind, players are more focused on how Harbaugh and the 49ers coaching staff put them in position to succeed. Twenty-seven wins in two seasons speaks to that.
It also doesn’t hurt that the 49ers coaching staff took the NFL world by storm this year with the usage of zone-read option plays.
In the process of making 10 starts for the 49ers, Kaepernick became a household name.
Undoubtedly, Kaepernick’s unique blend of size and athleticism helped his ascension to the starting lineup, but so did play-calling and coaching.
“The Xs and Os are a strong part for him and he’s got a great feel for calling a game,” Polian said of Harbaugh. “That comes from being a quarterback. As a football man, I almost see that as a given. You sort of take that for granted because he was a quarterback and he knows exactly how to call a game and has a feel for the game.”
With that feel, Harbaugh and the rest of the 49ers talent evaluators spent the entire combine getting to know this year’s prospects with the hopes of “championing” the best talent.
Polian sees San Francisco being able to do just that with an expected 14 draft picks in the upcoming draft.
“It’s going to give them an opportunity to reload at a time when some of their players like Justin Smith are reaching middle-age, football middle-age,” Polian said. “It’s going to give them an opportunity to balance the cap going forward and all of that, that’s a terrific job by (General Manager) Trent (Baalke) to do that.”
So while Polian never had the chance to work with Harbaugh directly in the NFL, he certainly appreciates the guidance the 49ers coach provides his team.
Polian knows he’s been that way for some time.
The longtime executive recalled a conversation with Harbaugh’s former Colts head coach Ted Marchibroda which still sticks with him to this day.
“I asked Ted about him before I came here and took the job and of course, Jim left the year that I came because we drafted Peyton, but he was a perfect gentleman and a pro about that, but I asked Ted about him and Ted said, ‘He’s really something special.’ He said, ‘You’re going to like him. Great guy. He’s got that special something that all great ones have.’
“That’s a paraphrase, but it’s pretty darn close to verbatim and he’s proven to be the case.”