Thanks to the 2012 NFL season's most sudden and surprising quarterback switch, San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh has become a polarizing figure. With the Niners (8-2-1) closing in on a second consecutive NFC West title and Colin Kaepernick having displaced Alex Smith, Harbaugh's handling of a delicate situation will be hotly debated until San Francisco's season is complete.
Even after Smith's mildly frustrated comments to reporters Thursday about losing his starting job following a concussion, Harbaugh's dramatic move has yet to mushroom into a full-blown locker-room controversy.
Had Harbaugh been confronted with a similar situation during his 14-year career as an NFL quarterback, however, some of his former teammates believe the fiery competitor would not have accepted his demotion so gracefully.
"Now that he's the coach, he's handling it like a coach is supposed to," said Ray Buchanan, a standout cornerback who played with Harbaugh on the Indianapolis Colts from 1994-96. "But the Jim Harbaugh who I knew, who was feisty and competitive, he wouldn't have handled it well. I don't think he'd have handled it as well as Alex did. He'd have been a lot more outspoken with the coach. He would cause a little more havoc. And he probably would have spoken out to the media as well."
Retired defensive tackle Tony Siragusa, a teammate of Harbaugh's with the Colts ('94-96) and Baltimore Ravens ('98), agreed with Buchanan's assessment.
"The Jim Harbaugh I knew would be going crazy," Siragusa said. "He would not stand for that. He would be going ballistic. But Jim Harbaugh the player and Jim Harbaugh the coach are like two completely different people."
In separate conversations on Thursday, a half dozen of Harbaugh's former teammates with the Chicago Bears, Colts, Ravens and San Diego Chargers described him as a popular and fiery leader. They spoke glowingly of the quarterback's competitive drive, work ethic, toughness and locker-room demeanor.
"We used to call him 'Dog,' cause he's so feisty, a chip-on-the-shoulder type guy," said former Bears receiver Curtis Conway, who caught passes from Harbaugh as a rookie in 1993. "He wasn't a wimpy quarterback. He's tough. He was a hell of a competitor, and his will to win was incredible. And he wasn't going to back down from anybody."
Harbaugh's ex-teammates also helped shed light on the psyche of a second-year coach who abruptly switched to Kaepernick after a concussion kept Smith — then the league's third-rated passer — out of a Monday night game against the Bears 11 days ago.
Though the Niners' coach initially refused to reveal which quarterback would get the call against the New Orleans Saints last Sunday — and avoided publicly committing to Kaepernick beyond this Sunday's road game against the St. Louis Rams — Harbaugh's ex-teammates do not believe he made the decision cavalierly.
"I'm pretty sure about the fact that this is not a game-playing thing for him," said Hall of Fame halfback Marshall Faulk, who played with Harbaugh in Indy from 1994-97. "It's for the greater good of the team. There is no personal gain for him. Everything he does is for the greater good of that team, and he's not going to deviate from that."
Said former Chargers and New England Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, who shared a locker room with Harbaugh in San Diego in 1999 and 2000: "He has his way of doing things. He has a different personality — everyone knows that. But at the end of the day, he's either going to look like a hero or a complete jerk, and he's fine with that.
"The one thing I can respect about him is, 'Who cares what anybody thinks?' Our game is so driven by public perception. He doesn't care what people think of this decision; he's making it. It's the same way with Bill Belichick. He's going to do what he thinks is right, and that's it."
Whether Harbaugh was conflicted about the decision, however, is another matter. Though he started 140 games in his career, the former first-round pick out of Michigan didn't always enjoy the smoothest of circumstances as a player.
In Chicago, he had a strained relationship with fellow quarterback Mike Tomczak, who once threatened to file a defamation suit against Harbaugh. He also had some celebrated blowups with Bears coach Mike Ditka, including a memorable sideline exchange in a 1992 game after Harbaugh defied his coach's orders not to audible and threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown, triggering a Minnesota Vikings comeback.
Harbaugh, then the NFL's No. 2-rated passer, was benched in favor of Don Majikowski midway through the 1994 season by Colts coach Ted Marchibroda, who later brought Harbaugh to Baltimore after becoming the Ravens' coach. Harbaugh took a seat after one season as the Chargers' starter for former No. 2 overall pick Ryan Leaf, one of the most celebrated busts in NFL history, at the start of his final NFL campaign.
Given those experiences, Harbaugh's ex-teammates believe he understood the magnitude of his recent decision and its potential effect on Smith, Kaepernick and San Francisco's 51 other players.
"Knowing Jim, he's gone out of his way to make this as easy for Alex Smith as possible," said former Bears receiver Tom Waddle, who spent five seasons (1989-93) with Harbaugh in Chicago. "I think in some ways Jim sees a lot of himself in Alex, and vice-versa. He's a talented guy who got hit with a lot of adversity and overcame it through hard work and toughness to put himself in a position to be successful.
"I'd be shocked if this is something that doesn't keep Jim up at night. I don't think it's a decision he takes lightly."
Yet if Harbaugh empathizes with Smith, the maligned quarterback he surprisingly embraced after taking the Niners job before the 2011 season, the coach may relate to Kaepernick on a more instinctive level.
"Kaepernick has a different swagger, an excitement, a confidence about him," Conway says of the second-year passer. "That's Jim. He sees the dog in Kaep, and the confidence, and I feel like he connects with that. Alex lacked confidence when [Harbaugh] got there. He never had a reason to pull him, until the injury. Once that kid got in there and proved what Jim probably felt all along, he was going with him."
Said Buchanan: "You see how excited Colin Kaepernick is — always smiling, always in the players' faces, making a lot of noise. That was Jim. When I saw Kaepernick doing that stuff, I said, 'That's Jim all over again.' I have a picture in my house of Jim all up in our faces after we made a defensive play — him coming over and showing us some love, with that big old wide smile. Trust me, he sees the same things in this kid."
One thing to which some of Harbaugh's former teammates could not relate is his penchant for making deceptive, non-committal and downright implausible statements in interviews. From his assertion last June to espn.com's Mike Sando that anyone who believed the 49ers had pursued then-free agent Peyton Manning was "diabolical" to last week's insistence that Smith is "our starting quarterback," Harbaugh the coach seems to exist in a world of his own rhetorical creation.
"He talks in circles," said Siragusa, a Fox-TV sideline reporter who has interviewed Harbaugh on numerous occasions. "You would hope what's happening in the press is not happening in the locker room."
Waddle, for one, believes Harbaugh is savvy enough not to attempt such blatant spin-doctoring when addressing his players.
"I would think that what's said in the locker room is what resonates with the guys, and everything else is just noise," Waddle said. "I'd be shocked if it was the same message in the locker room as on the podium."
Even after the quarterback switch, it's tough to imagine that a coach who took over a team that went 6-10 the previous year and has since gone 22-6-1 (including playoffs) while nearly reaching Super Bowl XLVI wouldn't be extremely popular in the Niners' locker room. That said, the fun-loving quarterback who once cracked up Colts teammates by showing up for a Halloween party dressed as Star Trek's Mr. Spock is nowhere to be found when the tightly wound coach speaks with reporters.
"When I see him interviewed, like when he said [Smith was still the starter], I'm like, 'OK, now the system has got him,' " Buchanan said, laughing. "That's not Jim being Jim. That's Jim being politically correct.
"Cause the Jim Harbaugh I played with would be like, 'OK, we got the hot quarterback and we're gonna play him! Why would we take him out? You're on the bench, Alex Smith. Maybe if Colin Kaepernick gets one of those concussions, you'll go back in.' That's the real Jim. He would've had the whole media laughing."
In Harrison's eyes, his former Chargers teammate is merely executing a masterful gameplan aimed at media manipulation.
"Let's be honest," said Harrison, an analyst on NBC's Football Night In America. "The fact that he's doing this, he's getting national attention for his team. That's what he wants. If he'd just announced the switch and left it at that, it wouldn't be as big a story. Now, people care, and we're all talking about the San Francisco 49ers.
"Now that I'm in the media, I know the tricks of the trade. That's what this is about. He's playing with [the media]. It's a game. And he's winning."
In that sense, at least, maybe Harbaugh the coach isn't so different from Harbaugh the player.
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