Having had a couple of opportunities to speak with San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh on media calls this year, I'm well aware that while the man clearly knows as much about football as anyone on the planet, he's not always very open with reporters. That's not unusual among coaches, though it's a bit jarring when you live in Seattle and are used to Pete Carroll's two-page opening statements.
In any case, and for a coach who can be truculent under the best circumstances, it was understandable that Harbaugh might be a little tight-lipped at Monday's end-of-season press conference. Still burning from the 49ers' NFC championship loss to the New York Giants, Harbaugh was short to the point of exasperation at times, refusing to answer certain questions with anything beyond a simple "No," or "I'm not going to turn this into a personnel meeting." He used that one a LOT. But Harbaugh saved the best for last, when one reporter asked what he did after the loss to the Giants.
"Is it just California that everybody just wants to know how you feel? Care about what you thought, what you did, how you felt, how your pinky feels. Is that just a California thing? Back where I come from, nobody really cares. In my opinion, it is a California thing."
Harbaugh spent a lot of time in Michigan — his father was an assistant coach for Bo Schembechler for seven years, and Harbaugh played quarterback for the Wolverines. But he also attended Palo Alto High School, and his time as the quarterbacks coach for the Oakland Raiders (2002-2003), the head coach for the University of San Diego (2004-2006) and as Stanford's head coach (2007-2010) should have had him way up on the more "touchy-feely" aspects of the Cali mindset. Maybe Harbaugh picked up that grumpiness from Mike Ditka — he played quarterback for Da Coach from 1987 through 1992 at the start of a 15-year NFL career.
Harbaugh was, however, a bit more open when talking about his feelings for a group of players that surprised the NFL with a 13-3 record after a decade without a winning season for the 49ers franchise. "I've said so often how proud I was of this team. I thought they played their hearts out. I thought we were a well-coached team. Be very proud of our guys. They stand toe-to-toe and fight every time they go out onto the field. It didn't have the ending that we wanted. The football gods had a different ending in mind for this ballgame. [But I'll] be forever proud of our players and coaches the way they compete."
That must not be a "California thing." And if you expect him to interface with his players … well, think again. "I talk to all these guys every day. Pretty much every single day, almost every guy. They know how I feel. I know how they feel. No, we're not scheduling sit-down meetings with anybody on the team, from my standpoint, because I know them, they know me."
The coach was also still rolling one play over and over in his mind from the Giants loss — the ruling on the field that New York fullback Ahmad Bradshaw hadn't fumbled because his forward progress was stopped. It seemed an interesting call for a second-effort back such as Bradshaw, though Harbaugh may not have given his own defense enough credit for the stop.
"My opinion, that was a fumble," he said. "And I'm sure the league will defend it. And the officials will defend it. But to me the play was continuing. There was still struggling going on by Bradshaw. So, I feel like that was a fumble. We had a game against the Giants, the first time we played them, and Donte Whitner stripped the ball where the hit's made at the six and then he rips the ball out at the nine going backwards. Yeah, didn't like that it wasn't a fumble, but felt like that was forward progress. This one, I did not agree with. I felt like it was a fumble. I felt like this is analogous with the 'Tuck Rule.'"
Perhaps a valid point, but now, it's time to move on. What did Harbaugh learn about his team in his first year as an NFL coach — one that has him high on the list of Coach of the Year candidates?
"This is a class bunch of guys. It's a class group. A class team. They have never been a finger-pointing group. To a man that I've talked to, everybody looks at themselves in the mirror first. Things sting as it relates to what we could have done better."
He'll never be a New Age coach, but Harbaugh's old-school approach still clearly has a place in today's NFL.
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