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The Harbaugh Way

Posted Jan 13, 2012

As the 49ers concluded Thursday’s practice at team headquarters in Santa Clara, everyone was intently focused on the words spoken by coach Jim Harbaugh.

With the team days away from its first playoff appearance in nine seasons, San Francisco’s leader held the entire attention of coaches and players.

It’s been that way all season for Harbaugh, who became the fourth rookie NFL coach to win at least 13 games, joining previous 49ers coaches Steve Mariucci and George Seifert in the group.

According to tight end Delanie Walker, who will be out for Saturday’s Divisional Playoff game against the New Orleans Saints due to a jaw injury, Harbaugh has been consistent in his approach throughout his first year roaming the NFL sidelines as a head coach.

Harbaugh has done it with his demeanor, his actions and even his wardrobe.

By wearing the same black 49ers cap with matching long-sleeve fleece shirt tucked into his dark khaki pants, Harbaugh has sent quite the message.

“That’s the statement,” Walker said. “He’s saying, ‘I’m the same person every day. I’m not going to change as a coach. I’m not going to change what I wear.’”

And in being the same person daily, the players have grown a great deal of respect for their coach in a short amount of time.

Aldon Smith, who broke the team’s rookie single-season sack record with 14.0 sacks, knew Harbaugh was a unique coach right off the bat.

“He seemed like a guy who had a plan, who was on a mission,” said Smith, Harbaugh’s first-ever draft selection. “He had a focus.”

Walker saw a coach waiting to share stories and information with his players immediately.

“The first day the lockout was over, he was in the locker room, just waiting for guys to come in. He was telling stories, joking and stuff,” Walker recalled. “He was basically letting everyone get a feel for what type of person he was going to be.

“That’s the first time I realized we had a great coach… the first day I got here.”

Harbaugh has even won over his peers in the coaching business.

Earning the NFC’s No. 2 seed in his first go-around as a coach in the professional ranks has certainly made it easier to appreciate his steady hand in San Francisco’s success.

“When you look at where they were as a team and the turnaround in one season has been unbelievable,” Saints coach Sean Payton said this week. “We have a chance each year to vote on Players of the Year and Coach of the Year, and clearly he is the Coach of the Year this season.”

Harbaugh, a former 15-year NFL quarterback, has used his playing background to best relate with his players. He’s always trying to keep them loose, yet focused at the same time.

“He’s shown us you don’t have to be uptight all the time,” defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois said. “You can be relaxed, but be focused. You can have a smile on your face and have fun. With him, you can show your personality and be yourself.”

Harbaugh hasn’t let on much about his interests outside of football, other than referencing history and his appreciation for classic boxing encounters in various press conferences this season.

But when describing his “don’t overcook it” approach to Saturday’s playoff game, perhaps you could infer how Harbaugh enjoys his food to be served. “The analogy,” he explained, “would be like not to overcook it like a burnt piece of meat. That doesn’t taste real good.”

Behind closed doors, Harbaugh has brought a family-oriented atmosphere into the 49ers organization. The head coach typically sits in the back of team flights along with his players. He has music playing during practices to enhance the team’s energy. And, he takes the time check in with everyone on the roster.

“Harbaugh is like a player,” Walker added. “When you look at other players, we all communicate with each other and try to get to know each other. And that’s one thing he does, he tries to get to know the players and we talk to him like a player. He gets it.”

So when Michael Crabtree hooked up Harbaugh with a Jordan tracksuit, Harbaugh greatly appreciated the gesture.

“He was looking at me one day and he was like ‘Man, you need to get me a hoodie,’” Crabtree said. “So it took me like four or five weeks, but I got him one.”

Such instances prove how Harbaugh’s carried out his vision for keeping his team loose and focused at the same time.

In his mind, it’s not about how he’s feeling, but how his players are reacting to their environment.

“It just never really matters that much how I am, or just a coach,” Harbaugh said. “To me it’s the players. Where are they at in their preparation, their understanding of this game plan, and what their morale is, how they feel physically. If they feel good, I feel good.”

And that, in essence, is what has made the 49ers most successful in 2011.

“The thing I like about coach,” said quarterback Alex Smith, “is that he’s authentic. He’s an honest coach and he coaches everyone the same, no matter who it is.”

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