SANTA CLARA (AP) — Jim Harbaugh considers Muhammad Ali the most competitive athlete of all time — in anything.
Harbaugh got so giddy hearing father Jack’s stories of recently spending a Ravens practice alongside Ali in Baltimore, San Francisco’s coach shared it all with his players at the first possible chance.
That was last Tuesday, when the team returned to work following a season-opening victory at Green Bay. Five days later, the 49ers (2-0) dominated the Detroit Lions in Sunday night’s 27-19 victory that showed this team is among the NFL’s best on both sides of the ball and special teams with so many different ways it can win.
“One that Muhammad’s wife told my dad is when he was young and training he had to take the bus to school every day, 2 1/2 miles with the other kids,” Harbaugh said. “Rain, sleet, snow, humidity of the Louisville springs and falls, Muhammad would walk to the bus stop and all the kids would get on the bus and Muhammad would run and follow the bus to school every single day. Everybody thought he was crazy.”
Harbaugh, the reigning NFL coach of the year, clearly is finding different ways to motivate in his second season. Though that didn’t keep him from throwing in the old standby of “Who’s got it better than us? Nobody!” reference Monday when asked about his former Stanford team beating Southern California yet again over the weekend.
Now that Ali visited his big brother, John, back East, Harbaugh figures it’s time for the boxing icon to come see the 49ers.
And why not baseball Hall of Famer Willie Mays, too?
“We’ve been working (to make it happen),” Harbaugh said. “Grew up with a lot of Muhammad Ali stories. We all think in the Harbaugh family that Muhammad Ali is the greatest sports competitor this world’s ever known.”
Perhaps when Jack Harbaugh is in the Bay Area three weeks from now following back-to-back road games at Minnesota and the New York Jets and a week in Youngstown, Ohio, just like last year to keep his players’ body clocks properly adjusted without adding two extra flights to the challenge.
Until then, Harbaugh has plenty of positive words for the defending NFC West champion Niners. Each week, it takes him a while to run down the list of everybody on the roster who made an impact on the game.
Frank Gore’s grit in the run game, Delanie Walker’s blocking, Michael Crabtree’s third-down catches under pressure to preserve drives, and new receiver Mario Manningham’s big plays. Then, there was the always dependable kicker David Akers with two more field goals a week after connecting from 63 yards against the Packers to tie an NFL record. Kyle Williams did his part on special teams, and Dashon Goldson contributed a crucial, momentum-changing interception.
“Again, go back to the way our guys played, the toughness, the finish, the blocking, the tackling, those critical things that you need to win a tough bell-ringing game like this that we were able to get done,” Harbaugh said.
And these Niners want to establish their own identity, separate from last season’s 13-3 team that reached the NFC championship game and wound up a field goal short in overtime of a trip to the Super Bowl. Even with so many of the same faces leading the way.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s unit held Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford to 19 of 32 for 230 yards with two sacks and an interception. The Lions managed 15 first downs, two via penalty, and settled for Jason Hanson’s four field goals until finally reaching the end zone in the closing minutes.
“Playing on this team right now is really exciting,” linebacker Aldon Smith said. “Being fortunate enough to play on this defense is even more exciting, playing with all the playmakers.”
Harbaugh still finds plenty of areas where the 49ers can correct things and improve. Namely, a 50-yard completion from Stafford to Joique Bell that he called “one of the worst plays since we’ve been here.”
Still, there’s no question things are clicking in a hurry. Quarterback Alex Smith threw touchdown passes of 21 and 23 yards to tight end Vernon Davis, and seven different 49ers made receptions. Gore wound up with 89 yards and a short touchdown a week after running for 112 yards with a 23-yard score. Davis had five receptions in all and Crabtree made six catches, three of those to convert third downs — 7, 16 and 11 yards.
“It’s totally different, we are over and done with last year,” Alex Smith said. “It’s talked about, but for us we put it behind us and relearn everything. That’s how we look at it — a totally fresh start.”