Keidel: Jim Harbaugh, The San Francisco Treat

By Jason Keidel
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It happens all the time. George Seifert inherited Bill Walsh’s dynasty and won a Super Bowl. Barry Switzer did likewise with Jimmy Johnson’s juggernaut. And now we have Jim Harbaugh burnishing Mike Singletary’s behemoth.


After the Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier, and Bobby Petrino experiments exploded, college coaches became toxic to NFL brass. So, naturally, we knew the 49ers – who already plucked and purged college coach Dennis Erickson – were foolhardy in flirting with the hyperactive Stanford coach. It was one thing to go 12-1 in Palo Alto with all-world Andrew Luck throwing the ball, but Harbaugh would surely get his comeuppance outside his campus.

Instead, Harbaugh, with two notable players (Patrick Willis and Frank Gore), castaways, layaways, and underachievers, has gone 8-1 with the previously putrid 49ers. And by beating the Giants, any notion of a fluke or just feasting on a malnourished division has burned off.

Give Harbaugh Coach of the Year now, on the legal grounds of nolo contendere. Mike McCarthy is doing a fine job with his Super Bowl champs, but he’s got Galactus at quarterback. Marvin Lewis has reinvented the Bengals (and himself) but you just know the karma is bad in the Queen City.

The aforementioned Switzer and Seifert inherited Hall of Fame quarterbacks in Troy Aikman and Joe Montana. (Seifert actually got two if you include Steve Young.)

Harbaugh was bequeathed Alex Smith, who, in his third season, completed 48.7 percent of his passes and finished with a 57.2 QB rating. The only reason Smith isn’t the biggest QB bust of the last decade is because of JaMarcus Russell’s legendary lust for cuisine and codeine, forever owning that dubious pole position.

But perhaps if anyone can inspire the forlorn first pick of the 2005 NFL draft, it’s Harbaugh. A former QB who relied more on guts than gifts, Harbaugh carved out a 14-year NFL career of his own, coming within a Hail Mary of the Super Bowl (against my beloved black & gold) in 1995. This year, Smith has completed 64 percent of his passes, thrown 11 touchdowns and 3 interceptions, with a tidy, 95.8 rating.

Harbaugh proves that coaching means more to football than any other pro team sport. Perhaps it’s because such a violent game demands equally fervent devotion from players to the man calling the plays. Harbaugh isn’t reinventing the football wheel in Fisherman’s Wharf. He’s not even using his iconic predecessor’s West Coast offense. It’s a lot of Gore, a crunching defense, and asking Alex Smith to forget his first six seasons. A new coach is more salesman than tactician. Ask Rex Ryan, who has Jets fans frothing as though they’ve won two Super Bowls since he replaced the painfully gruff Eric Mangini.

Should San Francisco go just 4-3 (finishing 12-4) the rest of the way, you could argue that Harbaugh has done the best job of this generation. The 49ers haven’t won at least nine games in nine years, with 2-14 and 4-12 campaigns during that span (including 6-10 last year).

With his feisty, frat boy mien, Harbaugh has irked some in the establishment, symbolized by The Handshake with Jim Schwartz, who was steamed after the infamous midfield exchange (though the Detroit Lions seem irritated by a lot of people these days).

But 8-1 needs no apology. And unless you’re on the business end of one of his wins, it’s hard not to find Harbaugh refreshing, a pompom shaker in the stuffy, corporate halls of the NFL. The family name was already well represented by John, who has done darn well with the Baltimore Ravens. But brother Jim has upgraded the family tree to 2.0.

The Giants didn’t play poorly on Sunday. San Francisco was just a little better. The Giants will be fine. At least we expect them to be. So will the 49ers. No one expected them to be. It’s good to be named Harbaugh.

Feel free to email me:

Admit it, you didn’t expect this kind of success from Harbaugh. Join the conversation with Keidel in the comments below…

  • Kurt Spitzner

    Its nice to see someone capable of controlling a group of usually overpaid prim a donas and then actually have them accomplish something in league terms.He deserves all the credit but as the often devils advocate,lets see how he fairs next year as I see nothing that could make him look silly this year!

  • Robert Richardson

    jimmy Harbaugh is the “Truth”. So refreshing to see a coach who does his talking on the field.

    • JK

      Ah, Robert. Do I detect a barb at beloved Rex Ryan? I wouldn’t blame you for a moment…

      • Robert Richardson

        I want them to shake hands

  • JK

    Agreed, Jonas. Jimmy Johnson aside, college coaches have bombed in the NFL (including former Notre Dame icon Lou Holtz, among the many I mentioned in the column). Switzer was canned after Johnson’s players got old.

    Sure, Pete Carroll made the playoffs with Seattle last year, but his team was 7-9 and entered through the backdoor. His team won’t do the same this year because San Fran is running roughshod over the division. And Carroll has been an NFL coach, so he doesn’t qualify as a typical college guy.

    I guess there’s a chance Harbaugh’s a one-hit wonder, but I doubt it. Why would he go 8-1 during the hardest season – his first?

  • Jonas Altman-Kurosaki

    Yeah, as someone who typically only pays enough attention to football to know that the 49ers are included in the “stink every year” category of teams, it’s been nuts to see what is going on in San Fran in 2011. They straight up outplayed the Giants on Sunday, much to the frustration of everyone in New York, but when it came down to it, they made every play they had to and the Giants had to go for it on fourth down thrice in a row.

    I was one of the many that was surprised by Harbaugh even taking the San Fran gig rather than coaching his otherworldly Stanford QB, especially when Luck opted to return for another college season. But Harbaugh has been excellent in San Francisco and as you said, has been rather refreshing to watch as he leads the 49ers to success and himself to a Coach of the Year award. Monumental collapse aside, it’ll be interesting to see what they can do in the playoffs this year.

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