Jim Harbaugh's Wild Will

The 49ers coach comes across as a bit unhinged. That's both admirable and very problematic.
Share |
Just chilling, normal human style.

Screengrab via 30fps

San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh appears in need of serious psychotherapy. He wills rivalries into existence, holds grudges past their sell-by dates, believes in his own correctness even when all evidence points to the opposite conclusion, never settles, and may or may not use a Sharpie as a talisman. At the same time, he’s been a startlingly effective coach; the sort that players gravitate towards and feed off in times of need. He’s both a lunatic and a football savant. He also may be the one figure who best exemplifies what’s simultaneously impressive and oppressive about the contemporary NFL.

To understand the contradictions that Harbaugh presents, it’s perhaps best to start at his stop before the Niners—about 30 minutes south at Stanford; it’s 20 minutes north if you go by Niners HQ in Santa Clara. At any rate, it’s close in more ways than one. Harbaugh took the Stanford job in 2007, succeeding middle-manager incarnate Walt Harris after a one-win season in which the Cardinal rarely crossed midfield and executed several quick-kick punts on third down. Stanford had just finished off the worst five-year stretch in program history and seemed to conform to all possible suggestions that its student-athletes were too interested in their studies (or just the possibilities of life) and so incapable of keeping up with the increasing professionalization of college football.

In his first press conference, Harbaugh challenged Pac-10 stalwart USC, at that time the most successful program in the country, and professed that he would attack the job with “an enthusiasm unknown to mankind,” the sort of awkward statement of prowess that has since become a Harbaugh trademark. I was a Stanford senior when Harbaugh was hired, and stories circulated pretty much immediately that he tried to convince a large group of donors that we should start referring to the consistently half-empty Stanford Stadium as “Painsville.”

Shockingly, Harbaugh’s teams were able to back up the considerable talk. Stanford beat USC that season in arguably the biggest upset in college football history, won the Big Game against Cal after five consecutive losses, and, perhaps most impressively, looked like a real live football team despite having roughly the same talent as the prior season. Against all odds, Harbaugh convinced a bunch of good students that they were a blue-collar outfit fully capable of bullying any opponent. They blocked better, hit harder, and invited more flags for personal fouls. The Cardinal were suddenly dangerous.

Harbaugh eventually improved recruiting and turned Stanford into a building power, but those first few seasons most clearly communicate his approach to coaching. He took a flatly horrible team and almost immediately convinced them they were everything everyone said they weren’t. On a basic level, he managed this task by demanding excellence in the nuts and bolts of football—blocking schemes, positional coaching, team rules, and so on. But that only really worked because Harbaugh traded conventional wisdom for the irrational. Stanford couldn’t compete with USC, but he said they would, and so they did; the players liked school, but he said they were tough guys, and so they were; the school had no recruiting disadvantage, but he told recruits otherwise, and so they signed their letters of intent.

Harbaugh has displayed that same force of personality in the NFL. He’s occasionally flippant towards other coaches (as evidenced by his controversial quasi-handshakewith the Detroit Lions’ Jim Schwartz after a tight win in 2011) and has continued the long and self-created rivalry with Seattle Seahawks’ Pete Carroll that began with Harbaugh’s initial USC comments and escalated after Harbaugh ran up the score in 2009to give the Trojans the most lopsided loss in school history. On the sidelines, Harbaugh is far from a calming influence, gesticulating wildly after what he perceives to be terrible calls, and which usually aren’t. He’s also a very ineffective replay challenger, seemingly because he can’t imagine a scenario in which his opinion that his team should get the ball can be overturned by visual evidence. Watch Harbaugh for a full game, and you might get the impression that he’s unhinged, a lunatic who couldn’t hold down a job in most any other profession. With every new piece of evidence, it appears more obvious that this is not an act. He really is a big crazy weirdo.

Despite its fundamental conservatism, that doesn’t mean he’s out of place in the NFL, a league that’s always found room for eccentric personalities. The rub is that they typically have to conform to some expectation of football orthodoxy. Richard Sherman can talk all the trash he likes as long as he backs it up with sound bump-and-run coverage; Ray Lewis can dance like a buffoon if his moves can be spoken of as an extension of his leadership ability; Michael Irvin can guarantee wins provided that he proves himself to be a clutch performer. Every transgression must be attended by something familiar. In most cases, that same transgression becomes untenable the moment the person fails. What used to be known as confidence becomes the flaw of hubris, and what once seemed like a revolutionary approach to a particular position gets consigned to history as a failed attempt to upset the natural order.

Harbaugh is in many ways a very familiar type of coach. For all his bravado, he has proven himself humble enough to trust in his assistants and delegate certain strategic decisions. The Niners are also good in part because they execute their game plans—it’s not as if they succeed simply because Harbaugh wills them to do so. That blind belief in the vague triumph of managerial toughness over observable football reality was what sank Mike Singletary, his predecessor.

On a more superficial level, Harbaugh’s teams play a classic style of football that emphasizes domination in the trenches, an offense that moves the ball predominantly via the ground, and a hard-hitting defense. These are things that every team wants to do, of course, but Harbaugh fetishizes them. His formations can verge on self-parody—three tight ends, one of whom is a converted lineman, with a 330-pound nose tackle lined up as a fullback for good measure.

This is not to say that Harbaugh is secretly the most conservative coach in the NFL, just as no one would say Robert Griffin III is a conventional quarterback simply because he’s an efficient pocket passer. As is usually the case with this sort of thing, the reality isn’t so binary. Certain rebellious tendencies don’t undermine what would otherwise be a noble purity; staid conservatism doesn’t ruin what would otherwise be a step towards a better future. The two poles exist at the same time, with various elements revealing themselves depending on the situation and context.

Nevertheless, while this relationship between the orthodox and unorthodox is common to the NFL, it’s very different to experience it through a head coach. The stereotypical NFL coach is a few things: white, middle-aged, quick to anger, enamored of visors, almost certainly Republican if a voter at all, etc. But their conservativism isn’t only limited to appearance—it inflects the way in which they lead the team. The fundamental NFL approach, regardless of the complexity of the scheme, is dependent on getting amazing athletes to execute a plan as flawlessly as possible. Players are implemented rather than put in a position to express themselves, as in the college philosophy of “putting a guy in space.” It’s a system based not just on professionalism but on a very specific and narrow ideal of professionalism, and also on an attention to craft, the idea that if everyone does their job and doesn’t deviate from the plan everything will fall into place.

Harbaugh believes in this same general formula—the 49ers aren’t running backyard plays or disregarding the sport’s rules of engagement. But Harbaugh’s frankly unhinged style isn’t vestigial to the team’s personality. The Niners don’t punch the clock: they make a point of hitting hard, often after the whistle. They talk trash. They revel in blowouts. Like their coach, they are fundamentally indecent.

In other words, their brand of football embraces the more sordid aspects of a sport that, in its contemporary form, is pretty damn close to organized combat. This should be unsettling for fairly obvious reasons, especially as more and more former players lose their lives to CTE. And yet it’s also pretty damn thrilling, if only because the 49ers look ecstatic to be doing it. It’s difficult to watch them play without coming away extremely impressed with the athletic gifts of Colin Kaepernick, or the career-spanning toughness of Frank Gore, or the ball instincts of Dashon Goldson, or the pure pass-rushing abilities of Aldon Smith. There’s a sense that Harbaugh’s fuck-it-all attitude actually frees players to express their full potential on the field. They come across not as cogs in a plan, but as the select few capable of meeting the incredible expectations placed upon them. It’s telling that Harbaugh’s defining decision of the 49ers’ season—the decision to start Kaepernick over Alex Smith, a game manager who came within two muffed punts of the Super Bowl a year ago—traded stability for a higher ceiling and opened up new offensive possibilities. The team performs its best when it explores all the possibilities afforded to it.

It’s fun to watch. Yet, despite these heights of self-actualization, everything about the 49ers now reads like an extension of the Harbaugh brand. His inspiration trickles down from on high. He is a totalizing presence, a coach who demands excellence and, upon receipt, upstages his players with the sort of histrionics we tend to associate with prima donna receivers. He demands attention. His teams ratify his will. He is the volatile, thrashing soul of the NFL come to life.


Share |

Comments

I went over this site and I trust you have a considerable measure of great data, spared to my bookmarks Desktop PC Test

Wonderful blog! I found it while surfing around on Yahoo News. Do you have any suggestions on how to get listed in Yahoo News? I’ve been trying for a while but I never seem to get there! Appreciate it. Victor Noval

New site is solid. A debt of gratitude is in order for the considerable exertion. girlsdoporn

Great article with excellent idea!Thank you for such a valuable article. I really appreciate for this great information.. Victor Noval

That’s really amazing and extraordinary blogs & can help those who get issues in searching this type of information.
Sequoia Capital India

Awesome learning, do anybody mind just reference back to it web

A debt of gratitude is in order for setting aside an ideal opportunity to talk about this, I feel firmly about it and adoration adapting more on this point. On the off chance that conceivable, as you pick up skill, would you psyche upgrading your online journal with more data? It is to a great degree supportive for me. technology

I am happy to find this post Very useful for me, as it contains lot of information. I Always prefer to read The Quality and glad I found this thing in you post. Thanks gift shop

I think this is a better than average article. You make this data intriguing and locks in. You give perusers a considerable measure to consider and I welcome that sort of composing. websites

On the off chance that you set out to make me think today; mission fulfilled! I truly like you"re composing style and how you express your thoughts. Much obliged to you. computers

Thanks for another wonderful post. Where else could anybody get that type of info in such an ideal way of writing? internet

Precisely, you're exceptionally sort of us about remark!. online ads

I havent any word to welcome this post.....Really i am inspired from this post....the individual who make this post it was an awesome human..thanks for imparted this to us. marketing

Your articles are more than wow! And also the best way to make understand the things mentioned in it.
Mark Curry

I would never want to miss out any opportunity to read out your contents. http://www.floridanetworkrealty.com/mandarin-southside-st-johns-homes-for-sale.aspx

Much obliged such a great amount for this data. I need to tell you I agree on a few of the focuses you make here and others may require some further survey, yet I can see your perspective. Loft conversions twickenham

He wills rivalries into flower, holds grudges past their sell-by dates, believes in his own lineament person when all inform musiikinopetus

I am for sure returning again for more contents of yours. eternal tattoo pigment

Incredible .. Astounding .. I'll bookmark your web journal and take the encourages additionally… I'm glad to discover such a large number of valuable information here in the post, we need work out more methods in such manner, a debt of gratitude is in order for sharing. Long Trailing Indoor Plant

Yes i am completely concurred with this article and i simply need say this article is extremely decent and exceptionally useful article.I will make a point to be perusing your blog more. You made a decent point yet I can't resist the urge to ponder, shouldn't something be said about the other side? !!!!!!THANKS!!!!!! boca raton seo company

Your site is truly cool and this is an extraordinary moving article. coach

He wills rivalries into cosmos, holds grudges prehistoric their sell-by dates, believes in his own quality equal when all inform hotels in Gambia

Much thanks to you for the redesign, extremely pleasant site.. www.raftwars3.org/

This article was composed by a genuine speculation essayist. I concur a considerable lot of the with the strong focuses made by the essayist. I'll be back. Fahrrad Navi

This text may be value everyone’s attention. How will I learn more?
easy payday loans online

The matter that you provide is worth our time and energy. High quality link building service ! Best link building service forum

The matter that you provide is worth our time and energy. High quality link building service ! Best link building service forum

Fascinating information I haven’t been experienced such information in quite a long time.
easy payday lan

The caliber of information that you're offering is merely wonderful.
wwwlow rate whole life insurance

Love what you're doing here folks, keep it up!.. columbus search engine optimising

I constantly emailed this site post page to all my friends, because if prefer to read it then my all friends will too.
liabilty only

I truly cherished perusing your online journal. It was extremely very much composed and straightforward. Not at all like different online journals I have perused which are truly not that good.Thanks alot! marketing miami

The androgenic effects of this drug are moderate in nature.anabolic steroids online

Positive webpage, where did u think of the data on this posting?I have perused a couple of the articles on your site now, and I truly like your style. Much obliged and please keep up the powerful work. Niche relevant backlinks

It was thinking about whether I could utilize this review on my other site, I will connect it back to your site though.Great Thanks. bomb it 7

You have a genuine capacity for composing one of a kind substance. I like how you think and the way you speak to your perspectives in this article. I concur with your mindset. Much obliged to you for sharing. food

I as of late discovered numerous helpful data in your site particularly this online journal page. Among the loads of remarks on your articles. Much obliged for sharing. escort lebanon

I recommend any content. It's always wonderful to work out you will explain in words from middle and additionally picture quality using this valuable content is quite simply recognized. much more information access websites.escorts lebanon

might want. Sometimes, a person just doesn't have the time to put up the kind of decorations they wan.investigation fees

This web journal site is really cool! How was it made ! online-kreditvergleich24.de

The lineament of your articles and listing is large. Lee Escobar Blog

Thanks for sharing out this content it are really fastidious. 0800 lines

I feel strongly about it and love learning more on this topic. If possible, as you gain expertise, would you mind updating your blog with more information? It is extremely helpful for me.

Best Headphones

I infer I haven't interpreted specified incomparable physical anywhere added online. australian online pokies

Your articles don't displace around the bushes correct t to the part. 3D Wallpaper

I feel happiness to read the content that you are posting.
save url for multiple websites

it was a magnificent opportunity to visit this sort of site and I am cheerful to know. much thanks to you such a great amount for allowing us to have this open door.. https://www.stylewe.com/designer/annakiki-306

Hey buddy! I am really in favor of your post; you have given an awesome idea in your post that can anybody follows easily.
whole life quote

These articles have got complete sense without confusing the readers. http://cookiejamtool.com

Your articles are solon than wow! find more information