Jim Harbaugh has coached just one season in the NFL, hasn’t won a Super Bowl and doesn’t have a large body of work for which he can be judged.
Though his one season in the league was excellent – a 13-3 record and a berth in the NFC Championship Game – no one yet knows if he’s a one-year wonder or how he’ll do when faced with a season fraught with disappointments, bad luck and injuries.
Yet to some NFL observers and his own players, Harbaugh has that special “it factor” that many coaches lack.
On the same day this week that columnist Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com was ranking Harbaugh among the best three coaches in the league – along with Bill Belichick and Mike Tomlin, who have both won Super Bowls – Niners players were extolling the virtues and positive vibes of their second-year leader.
In rating the NFL’s coaches, Rosenthal admitted his judgment was based not on history, but on “who we’d want leading our team and building a staff right now if we owned a team.”
The resumes and accomplishments of Belichick and Tomlin speak for themselves. Obviously, they’d be at the top of anyone’s list.
As for Harbaugh, now in the midst of his second training camp with San Francisco, Rosenthal writes: “Harbaugh enjoyed as jaw-dropping a first season as head coach as we can remember. He creatively finds ways to beat teams and connects with his players.”
For that, Rosenthal ranks Harbaugh above what he calls the “next level” of coaches -- the Packers’ Mike McCarthy, Sean Payton of the Saints, Philadelphia’s Andy Reid and the Giants’ Tom Coughlin.
Jim Harbaugh even gets higher marks than his brother and Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who beat his brother’s team in their meeting last season and in his four seasons as head coach is 44-20 with four playoff berths and two trips to the AFC Championship Game. In fact, John Harbaugh is the first NFL coach in history to not only make the playoffs his first four seasons but to also win a playoff game in each of those seasons.
Yet Niners players, obviously, would side with Rosenthal’s ratings. Since Jim Harbaugh became head coach, his energy and constant positive vibe have changed the culture of the team, and his ability to put together an effective coaching staff and put together creative schemes and game plans turned the 49ers completely around.
In his three head coaching stops – the University of San Diego, Stanford and now the Niners – he’s done the same thing. So, while his NFL body of work is small, he has a track record of success.
And since taking over in San Francisco, Harbaugh’s wave of positivity has helped build Alex Smith’s confidence and turn him into a solid NFL quarterback.
Linebacker Eric Bakhtiari, who played for Harbaugh in college at USD and is now trying to make this year’s 49ers roster, says Harbaugh was the catalyst, when he took him aside one day as a redshirt freshman and gave him a pep talk.
“He told me I wasn’t a good player, I was a great player,” Bakhtiari told Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee. “I thought someone else was in the room. I didn’t think he was talking to me.”
In a story about Harbaugh’s coaching style, Barrows noted sports psychologists call this “positive coaching” – a style far different than the old-school, Bill Parcells and Mike Ditka screaming, in-your-face method – that connects with the 20something players of today.
“It’s positive and it builds up people’s confidence,” former Stanford lineman Derek Hall told Barrows. “And it makes you feel tighter with the coaches. He’s always preaching that you want to build up your teammates when you’re talking with the media – a rising tide lifts all ships.”
Smith says Harbaugh’s positive energy shouldn’t be mistaken for hype, however. He means what he says and says what he means and will be tough when he needs to be tough and critical when he needs to be critical.
But Smith says that’s why the 49ers buy into him.
“Anyone that’s been around coach Harbaugh for a while realizes – and I think it’s a great thing about him – he’s going to tell you what he thinks,” Smith told the Bee. “Good or bad, he is going to give you his honest opinion.”