Jim Harbaugh's Wild Will

The 49ers coach comes across as a bit unhinged. That's both admirable and very problematic.
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San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh appears in need of serious psychotherapy. He wills rivalries into existence, holds grudges past their sell-by dates, believes in his own correctness even when all evidence points to the opposite conclusion, never settles, and may or may not use a Sharpie as a talisman. At the same time, he’s been a startlingly effective coach; the sort that players gravitate towards and feed off in times of need. He’s both a lunatic and a football savant. He also may be the one figure who best exemplifies what’s simultaneously impressive and oppressive about the contemporary NFL.

To understand the contradictions that Harbaugh presents, it’s perhaps best to start at his stop before the Niners—about 30 minutes south at Stanford; it’s 20 minutes north if you go by Niners HQ in Santa Clara. At any rate, it’s close in more ways than one. Harbaugh took the Stanford job in 2007, succeeding middle-manager incarnate Walt Harris after a one-win season in which the Cardinal rarely crossed midfield and executed several quick-kick punts on third down. Stanford had just finished off the worst five-year stretch in program history and seemed to conform to all possible suggestions that its student-athletes were too interested in their studies (or just the possibilities of life) and so incapable of keeping up with the increasing professionalization of college football.

In his first press conference, Harbaugh challenged Pac-10 stalwart USC, at that time the most successful program in the country, and professed that he would attack the job with “an enthusiasm unknown to mankind,” the sort of awkward statement of prowess that has since become a Harbaugh trademark. I was a Stanford senior when Harbaugh was hired, and stories circulated pretty much immediately that he tried to convince a large group of donors that we should start referring to the consistently half-empty Stanford Stadium as “Painsville.”

Shockingly, Harbaugh’s teams were able to back up the considerable talk. Stanford beat USC that season in arguably the biggest upset in college football history, won the Big Game against Cal after five consecutive losses, and, perhaps most impressively, looked like a real live football team despite having roughly the same talent as the prior season. Against all odds, Harbaugh convinced a bunch of good students that they were a blue-collar outfit fully capable of bullying any opponent. They blocked better, hit harder, and invited more flags for personal fouls. The Cardinal were suddenly dangerous.

Harbaugh eventually improved recruiting and turned Stanford into a building power, but those first few seasons most clearly communicate his approach to coaching. He took a flatly horrible team and almost immediately convinced them they were everything everyone said they weren’t. On a basic level, he managed this task by demanding excellence in the nuts and bolts of football—blocking schemes, positional coaching, team rules, and so on. But that only really worked because Harbaugh traded conventional wisdom for the irrational. Stanford couldn’t compete with USC, but he said they would, and so they did; the players liked school, but he said they were tough guys, and so they were; the school had no recruiting disadvantage, but he told recruits otherwise, and so they signed their letters of intent.

Harbaugh has displayed that same force of personality in the NFL. He’s occasionally flippant towards other coaches (as evidenced by his controversial quasi-handshakewith the Detroit Lions’ Jim Schwartz after a tight win in 2011) and has continued the long and self-created rivalry with Seattle Seahawks’ Pete Carroll that began with Harbaugh’s initial USC comments and escalated after Harbaugh ran up the score in 2009to give the Trojans the most lopsided loss in school history. On the sidelines, Harbaugh is far from a calming influence, gesticulating wildly after what he perceives to be terrible calls, and which usually aren’t. He’s also a very ineffective replay challenger, seemingly because he can’t imagine a scenario in which his opinion that his team should get the ball can be overturned by visual evidence. Watch Harbaugh for a full game, and you might get the impression that he’s unhinged, a lunatic who couldn’t hold down a job in most any other profession. With every new piece of evidence, it appears more obvious that this is not an act. He really is a big crazy weirdo.

Despite its fundamental conservatism, that doesn’t mean he’s out of place in the NFL, a league that’s always found room for eccentric personalities. The rub is that they typically have to conform to some expectation of football orthodoxy. Richard Sherman can talk all the trash he likes as long as he backs it up with sound bump-and-run coverage; Ray Lewis can dance like a buffoon if his moves can be spoken of as an extension of his leadership ability; Michael Irvin can guarantee wins provided that he proves himself to be a clutch performer. Every transgression must be attended by something familiar. In most cases, that same transgression becomes untenable the moment the person fails. What used to be known as confidence becomes the flaw of hubris, and what once seemed like a revolutionary approach to a particular position gets consigned to history as a failed attempt to upset the natural order.

Harbaugh is in many ways a very familiar type of coach. For all his bravado, he has proven himself humble enough to trust in his assistants and delegate certain strategic decisions. The Niners are also good in part because they execute their game plans—it’s not as if they succeed simply because Harbaugh wills them to do so. That blind belief in the vague triumph of managerial toughness over observable football reality was what sank Mike Singletary, his predecessor.

On a more superficial level, Harbaugh’s teams play a classic style of football that emphasizes domination in the trenches, an offense that moves the ball predominantly via the ground, and a hard-hitting defense. These are things that every team wants to do, of course, but Harbaugh fetishizes them. His formations can verge on self-parody—three tight ends, one of whom is a converted lineman, with a 330-pound nose tackle lined up as a fullback for good measure.

This is not to say that Harbaugh is secretly the most conservative coach in the NFL, just as no one would say Robert Griffin III is a conventional quarterback simply because he’s an efficient pocket passer. As is usually the case with this sort of thing, the reality isn’t so binary. Certain rebellious tendencies don’t undermine what would otherwise be a noble purity; staid conservatism doesn’t ruin what would otherwise be a step towards a better future. The two poles exist at the same time, with various elements revealing themselves depending on the situation and context.

Nevertheless, while this relationship between the orthodox and unorthodox is common to the NFL, it’s very different to experience it through a head coach. The stereotypical NFL coach is a few things: white, middle-aged, quick to anger, enamored of visors, almost certainly Republican if a voter at all, etc. But their conservativism isn’t only limited to appearance—it inflects the way in which they lead the team. The fundamental NFL approach, regardless of the complexity of the scheme, is dependent on getting amazing athletes to execute a plan as flawlessly as possible. Players are implemented rather than put in a position to express themselves, as in the college philosophy of “putting a guy in space.” It’s a system based not just on professionalism but on a very specific and narrow ideal of professionalism, and also on an attention to craft, the idea that if everyone does their job and doesn’t deviate from the plan everything will fall into place.

Harbaugh believes in this same general formula—the 49ers aren’t running backyard plays or disregarding the sport’s rules of engagement. But Harbaugh’s frankly unhinged style isn’t vestigial to the team’s personality. The Niners don’t punch the clock: they make a point of hitting hard, often after the whistle. They talk trash. They revel in blowouts. Like their coach, they are fundamentally indecent.

In other words, their brand of football embraces the more sordid aspects of a sport that, in its contemporary form, is pretty damn close to organized combat. This should be unsettling for fairly obvious reasons, especially as more and more former players lose their lives to CTE. And yet it’s also pretty damn thrilling, if only because the 49ers look ecstatic to be doing it. It’s difficult to watch them play without coming away extremely impressed with the athletic gifts of Colin Kaepernick, or the career-spanning toughness of Frank Gore, or the ball instincts of Dashon Goldson, or the pure pass-rushing abilities of Aldon Smith. There’s a sense that Harbaugh’s fuck-it-all attitude actually frees players to express their full potential on the field. They come across not as cogs in a plan, but as the select few capable of meeting the incredible expectations placed upon them. It’s telling that Harbaugh’s defining decision of the 49ers’ season—the decision to start Kaepernick over Alex Smith, a game manager who came within two muffed punts of the Super Bowl a year ago—traded stability for a higher ceiling and opened up new offensive possibilities. The team performs its best when it explores all the possibilities afforded to it.

It’s fun to watch. Yet, despite these heights of self-actualization, everything about the 49ers now reads like an extension of the Harbaugh brand. His inspiration trickles down from on high. He is a totalizing presence, a coach who demands excellence and, upon receipt, upstages his players with the sort of histrionics we tend to associate with prima donna receivers. He demands attention. His teams ratify his will. He is the volatile, thrashing soul of the NFL come to life.


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