SANTA CLARA — From Nick Saban and Steve Spurrier to Dennis Erickson, winning college coaches have long failed to translate their success to the next level.
Jim Harbaugh needed just one year to emphatically break that mold — and he didn’t even have to change his unique rah-rah style to transform the San Francisco 49ers (13-3) into a Super Bowl contender this season. They head into Saturday’s home playoff game against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints (14-3) as an underdog, just as he likes it.
Harbaugh has become the favorite for Coach of the Year by doing things his way from Day 1.
He gives up his seat in first class in favor of a spot in coach with his players. He sits down in the cafeteria to chat up kicker David Akers, punter Andy Lee and long snapper Brian Jennings — hardly a trio on any team accustomed to much one-on-one time with the head coach.
Harbaugh acknowledges he doesn’t need to socialize with others around the league, aside from Baltimore Ravens coach and big brother, John, that is. He doesn’t care about making friends in the NFL or being popular among his peers. He once said, “If the 49ers success offends you, so be it.”
He took a chance that Alex Smith would thrive playing for the former NFL QB, and brought back the 2005 No. 1 overall draft pick for another season — even handing off his playbook to Smith in good faith well before the lockout lifted last summer and Smith signed his $4.9 million deal.
“I like what he told us the other day, to ‘keep the powder dry,’” running back Anthony Dixon said Tuesday. “When they used to light the TNT bombs back in the day and they had the powder that led up to them, he just wants us to stay calm, stay ready, stay in it, concentrating and focusing on the details and come Saturday let it explode.”
The highly sought after Harbaugh left Stanford days after finishing with a 12-1 record and a commanding Orange Bowl victory over Virginia Tech last January for a $25 million, five-year deal right down the freeway with the Niners. He was challenged to turn around a franchise that went 6-10 last season and hadn’t earned a playoff berth or posted a winning record since 2002.
While warning improvement is a “process,” Harbaugh promised an immediate culture change and to build a contender — yet hardly anyone would have envisioned 13-3, the NFC’s No. 2 seed and a first-round playoff bye.
“Jim Harbaugh, he instilled an identity to this team,” Hall of Fame wide receiver and former 49ers great Jerry Rice said.
Players insist it’s rare to have a coach who never calls them out publicly or even in front of teammates, someone who has their backs.
“Those are the head coaches that you like,” safety Donte Whitner said. “Like Rex Ryan, he will never throw his players under the bus and he puts all the pressure on himself. Coach Harbaugh does the same thing. A lot of coaches, when they don’t want the pressure on them, don’t want the hands pointed at them or the media to turn on them, they put things out to the media that really shouldn’t be out there, That stuff never works and players really understand that and locker rooms understand that.”
Akers had options last offseason, yet the 49ers were high on his list because of Harbaugh and Akers’ connections to the coaching family — even if it meant the inconvenience of moving his family cross-country. Akers booted an NFL single-season record 44 field goals and earned All-Pro and Pro Bowl nods.
“His whole thing at the beginning was building the foundation and we’ve been able to do that,” Akers said. “To be 13-3, you’ve had great games. We really haven’t had the blowouts, so you find a way to win. I would say yes, that blue-collar atmosphere, what that means is you’re coming here on a daily basis and these guys are going out and working hard when maybe somebody else isn’t.”
Harbaugh has done something a handful of others jumping from college to the NFL couldn’t.
Saban won a BCS championship at LSU before departing to take over the Dolphins. He went 15-17 in two years in Miami before resigning to take the job at Alabama. Spurrier built Florida into a national powerhouse and won a national title, then went 12-20 in two seasons with the Redskins and resigned.
Erickson has had multiple stints in the college and pro game. He went from Miami to the Seahawks, then Oregon State to the 49ers — going 9-23 during the 2003-04 seasons before being fired.
Harbaugh has bucked the trend.
“His 15 years he played as a player obviously is a help. He had a good feel for the pro game from that perspective,” said 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who came to the Niners with Harbaugh from Stanford. “He worked a couple years with the Raiders, so he got it from the coaching perspective. He came into this position with already a pretty good working knowledge of what the NFL’s all about.”
Harbaugh has also incorporated some signature phrases and traits he learned as a boy from his coaching father, Jack.
Like that “Who’s got it better than us? No-body!” Or his blue-collar approach of untucking his shirt — the standard black pullover fleece with pleated khaki slacks — after a win in tribute to his hard-working uncles.
The 49ers sure know they’ve got a great thing going, and Harbaugh’s chant reinforces that. T-shirts were made with the saying.
On a roster featuring many of the same faces who endured the eight-year playoff drought, Harbaugh has been the biggest difference. The Niners bought in. They went 6-2 on the road and won four of those games in comeback fashion. Those tight matchups were the very ones San Francisco couldn’t win in the past.
“It’s special,” running back Frank Gore said. “I feel that we always had the talent. I think now we have a great staff who know how to work with talent the right way. Coach Harbaugh and his coaching staff did a great job with us, and we always believed in ourselves in this locker room, knowing what we can do. And now this year shows what we’re about.”
And that Harbaugh can flat out coach — at any level.