A Bunker Mentality…..

“I don’t look for friends, I look for allies.” —-Jim Harbaugh (in recent article I read)

I recently came across an article written about San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh. It was centered around his personality and coaching style as well as the ongoing back and forth with GM Trent Baalke. Rumors have swirled about Harbaugh’s departure at the end of this season whether it be his choice or the organization’s choice to move on. Some of the rumors have been confirmed that the 49ers actively tried to trade Jim Harbaugh. Other rumors have been nonfounded, but he seems to be linked to any open coaching position or potential coaching opening especially the position at University of Michigan where Harbaugh played quarterback.

The article delved into sides of Harbaugh that are not seen or known by many. It intrigued me enough to form a strong opinion and obviously take to the blog to write about it.

Jim Harbaugh’s head coaching career started in 2004 at the University of San Diego. He guided the Toreros in his first year to a 7-4 record. He followed his first season up with back to back league titles finishing both campaigns at 11-1. From there he was off to Stanford.

The five season prior to Harbaugh’s arrival at Stanford were marred in frustration. The Cardinal had 2 head coaches (Buddy Teevens, Walt Harris) and 5 straight losing seasons (2-9, 4-7, 4-7, 5-6, 1-11) with a combined record of 16-40. Needless to say, Harbaugh was not walking into a powerhouse with the Cardinal.

Despite the Cardinal finishing 1-11 the year prior to Harbaugh, he didn’t back down as he fired shots at then Power Pete Carroll and the USC Trojans. Harbaugh followed his comments up later that year by upsetting the Trojans 24-23 as a 41 point underdog. It is statistically the greatest upset in the history of college football. He finished his first year at 4-8. Improving every year he followed up with seasons of 5-7, 8-5, and 12-1. His last year concluded with a BCS Orange Bowl win and the coach of the year. He took a struggling program in a conference with USC and Oregon and turned it into a conference contender.

In the midst of Harbaugh turning the Stanford program around, the 49ers were struggling to find their way. They had 0 winning seasons since 2003. They courted Harbaugh after the BCS win and hired him to a 5 year deal.

Just as he did at San Diego and Stanford, he led the 49ers to success. His first 3 years, they compiled records of 13-3, 11-4-1, and 12-4. They lost twice in the NFC Championship game and once to his brother John in the Super Bowl. He is currently 6-4 this season and in the middle of the playoff hunt.

This paints an overview of his coaching career, a successful career thus far. However, the picture is not that clear and simple.

There is a public feud growing between him and the organization, specifically GM Trent Baalke. He has turned some people off in his rise to success. He brings an intensity and hard nosed culture that some are not used to. A former employee was quoted as saying “I was very afraid around him and afraid that he would flip on me at any time.” He stripped David Shaw, now coach at Stanford, of offensive play calling responsibility during his stint at Stanford. He parted ways with a friend and former player who he hired while at Stanford. He fired some of his defensive staff at Stanford after the program had its first winning season in 8 years. When arriving in San Fran, he banned music and card games among the players on flights.

Players at San Diego and Stanford have complained of the rigorous conditioning they were put through. Upon hearing of the complaints, Harbaugh ran hills with the players. People have questioned his raggedy look. Harbaugh explains that he wears the same clothes, team sweatshirt and cheap khakis, in order to avoid the nonsense of picking clothes out and wasting time on game day. Some ex coaches and players have whined about him being non approachable on game day. Harbaugh’s answer is that he is completely focused on the task at hand. He has banned music and card games on the team’s flights. He wants the team to have that same intense bunker mentality. Harbaugh says “I dont look for friends, I look for allies.” All of this has led some within the 49ers organization to question if he really is a great coach or its just a great record.

Those same people choose to ignore the other side of Jim Harbaugh. In the coaching culture, which leads many coaches working long hours to prepare, Harbaugh allows his assistants to leave early a few nights a week to have dinner with their families. He has babysat assistant coaches children so that they can take their wives out on dates. He eats lunch with a different group of players daily to try and get to know them on a deeper level. He buys cakes for players and assistants birthdays. He never throws players under the bus to the media and has gone to battle for many in contract negotiations.

Harbaugh is very aware of the negativity swirling around him. He hears the whispers in the organization about him. The scrutiny and rumors intensified when the 49ers struggled to start the season. Harbaugh who has a quote for everything says” As long as all that’s written is said against me, then I feel a certain assurance of success.”

The article showed both sides of Harbaugh to me. All of the “negativity” that former and current co-workers have said shows to me he is a leader. He is not complacent with some success. He continually wants to get better daily. It showed me he is not afraid to make tough decisions no matter who is involved. Some may want to ignore it, but he does have a side other than the intense side we see on Sundays.

The 49ers organization may want to look at only one side of the picture. They may decide his record looks better than his coaching skill. Whatever the outcome may be, whether its with the 49ers, with another organization, back at the college level, or coaching midget football he will be a success. How do I know that? I’ll leave Jim the last words… “A man can be destroyed but he cant be defeated”


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