DETROIT – Here came San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, right down the row of towel-draped, 300-pound offensive linemen in the San Francisco locker room. The 49ers had just defeated the Detroit Lions 25-19, a victory punctuated by a near postgame brawl between Harbaugh and his Lions counterpart, Jim Schwartz.
"It was a bar fight," Harbaugh kept shouting as he hugged, held and hammered on the shoulders of Mike Iupati(notes) and Anthony Davis and the rest of the behemoths who had helped the Niners roll up 203 rushing yards on Ndamukong Suh(notes) and the gang.
"It was a damn bar fight out there," the Niners coach reiterated.
The hottest coach in the NFL was laughing and smiling and bouncing around. This was nirvana for the Niners, now 5-1. "Who's got it better than us?" Harbaugh had asked his team after the game and, like always, they shouted "no one."
Who can argue now? The Niners walked into Detroit and slapped the season's first loss on the Lions. Then their coach, admittedly out of control with glee, delivered an overaggressive handshake of Schwartz that led to a huge scrum near the Ford Field tunnel.
"I was just really revved up; It's totally on me," Harbaugh said, not looking a bit sorry for it. "I shook his hand too hard. I really went in and it was a really strong, slap, grab handshake."
Schwartz said there was "an obscenity" too, which led to him chasing after Harbaugh and delivering a bump of his own. While the details are debatable, the impact is not: San Francisco and its in-your-face coach are not to be ignored.
"What's your deal?" Pete Carroll asked Jim Harbaugh, back when they were in the Pac-10. Harbaugh coached cellar-dweller Stanford; Carroll was at mighty USC. Harbaugh was intent on switching places and didn't mind everyone knowing it, hard feelings be damned.
It's no different now.
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"He was excited for us," Davis said. "They didn't like it. They got beat in their own house."
"Guess what," Iupati asked. "We won."
Oh, the Niners are back, but this isn't that old classy, genteel organization of Bill Walsh and Joe Montana and Jerry Rice – gentlemen one and all. This is a nasty, physical, rumbling group that from Day 1 took on the personality of its fiery, unapologetic coach.
"Well meet again and see what's up," Avril wrote. " … You did NOTHING."
"I pancaked you on a passing play," Davis wrote. "Sooo uh just be quiet go home play with your kids and go to bed."
And you thought the players might care about their coach's antics?
"They played with gravel in their guts," Harbaugh said of his guys.
And that's what pushed him over the edge, he said. When you see effort like that, when you watch a defense step up in the face of the high-powered Calvin Johnson(notes) Show (no touchdowns), when you watch a once-rocky quarterback in Alex Smith deliver a tough road victory, when you watch a running game get physical (141 yards from Frank Gore(notes)), you bet you're going to get fired up. Maybe even too fired up.
"I don't think I'm that emotional," Harbaugh tried to claim before realizing that sentiment was ridiculous and laughing at himself. "I am very emotional about the outcome and the way our players played. I'm really proud of that. Hopefully you can understand.
"When you're with a group of guys, you're on a team, you're trying to do something special and to see your guys go out and perform that way, yeah, you do get emotional.
"I'm not going to apologize for that. If that offends you or anybody else, then so be it."
Schwartz, for one, may have been offended. "I went to congratulate Coach Harbaugh and got shoved out of the way," he said. "[I] didn't expect an obscenity at that point … you're excited and things like that, but I think there's a protocol that goes with this league."
Harbaugh isn't much for protocol. Not now, not ever.
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Will being too emotional hurt you, he was asked.
So far, it hasn't. At the final gun, Harbaugh was dancing across the field in full celebration mode, the kind you don't often see with dour NFL coaches. He didn't stop and contain himself before the handshake, instead almost sweeping Schwartz up in the fun.
When he turned to run off the field, Schwartz went after him. Things began escalating quickly. San Francisco public relations executive Bob Lange, classily dressed in a dark suit and tie, tried to separate them as players from both teams converged.
"At that point I was the midget in the middle," Lange said. "I almost lost a cuff link. That would've been bad."
Davis may have done the best job getting between them. "I just got my coach's back," he said. Davis noted the 49er players weren't looking to fight anyone. First because "we were too tired [from] handing out an ass-whopping [in the game]" and besides, coach didn't need any help.
"Schwartz didn't have a chance," Davis joked. "That's why I saved him."
This was the postgame locker room: lots of laughs, lots of did-you-see-that's and lots of can-you-believe-that? In the middle was Harbaugh, the 14-year veteran player known for his "Captain Comeback" nickname during a mid-1990s run with the Indianapolis Colts.
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San Francisco hasn't had a winning season since 2002. It went 6-10 last season. Then it hired Harbaugh out of Stanford and overnight it not only decided it was ready to fight the rest of the NFL but that it would hand out the whippings.
Harbaugh was eventually done with his tour of the locker room. The energy was still pouring out of him.
Maybe it was the thrill of the road victory – San Francisco's third in three tries this season. Maybe it was the adrenaline of the near fight. Maybe it was the realization that this was all coming together, that this team is for real, that his way, once again, was working in the face of angry peers and doubting critics.
"It was a bar fight," he said again, now standing near the entry to showers. "You guys prevailed in the end. Nice job. Hell of a job."
At that point, no one was even listening to him. Jim Harbaugh was just shouting to himself.
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