This column was originally published on January 12, 2012.
What's it like to deal with 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh on a daily basis?
Ky Snyder can tell you. Snyder gave Harbaugh his first head coaching job, at the University of San Diego. There and everywhere else Harbaugh has been, he plows ahead in his mission with a single-minded attitude, letting the chips fall where they may.
"He leaves a large wake," Snyder said recently. "But it's great being on the ship."
This weekend, the ship embarks at ramming speed. But as the 49ers approach their first playoff game since 2003, a Saturday afternoon kickoff against the New Orleans Saints, casual and devoted fans still wonder: How did this guy do it? How did Harbaugh turn around a team that had gone nine years without a winning record? How did he transform that team into a division winner and legitimate Super Bowl contender? In less than 12 months?
The answer is simpler than you'd think. About once a week this season while meeting with the press, Harbaugh would awkwardly parry a question about an upcoming game plan or decision by explaining that he can't give away that kind of information and then jokingly remark about himself: "I know, I'm moody and complicated."
In truth, he's neither. Harbaugh's mood is always the same mood, whenever his boots are on the ground at 49ers headquarters. He is in favor of anything that gets to the next victory. He's against everything else, any side issues or secondary agendas. That's not complicated.
Right about here, you're probably asking yourself: Isn't every NFL team like that? You'd be surprised at the answer.
It's amazing how some franchises become sidetracked by tangential issues such as the size of office desks or the brand of courtesy cars (or in the famous case of former 49ers coach Mike Nolan, his clash with league officials about wearing a suit on the sideline rather than NFL-licensed coaching garb). Harbaugh thinks about only one thing: what's necessary to win.
Snyder, the University of San Diego athletic director, saw this quality in Harbaugh in 2004 when the school was looking for a new football coach and Snyder was making the hire. The USD Toreros program does not grant athletic scholarships but competes against some schools that do. The resources aren't comparable to those at a major football program. The Toreros had posted a winning record in only three of the previous nine seasons.
Snyder wondered if Harbaugh, who was then an assistant coach for the Oakland Raiders, was willing to step down to USD's level and accept the limitations. Harbaugh was -- because he didn't see limitations. He saw possibilities.
"Jim really does have a big personality," Snyder said. "His greatest attribute is his ability to elevate everybody's game around him. I affectionately referred to him as the pied piper, for the way he would have people follow him -- players, staff, alums, students. But he's also a great X's and O's guy. And finding those two things in combination, in one person, is rare."
After Harbaugh went 29-6 with two league championships at USD, he was hired at Stanford University and asked to extract a Cardinal team from the sludge created by five straight losing seasons. His first team scored a monumental upset over the University of Southern California, and within three years, Harbaugh took Stanford to a bowl game.
"He changed the culture of the program," said Matt Doyle, the Stanford football operations director, who worked daily and almost hourly with Harbaugh. "He once told me that every decision he made was going to be for the good of the team, said that I might not agree with some of the decisions or staff members might not agree, but it was going to be for the good of the team. And he was right."
Doyle then listed three prime examples.
Before home games, Stanford's team traditionally made a walk from their remote daily-use locker room to the stadium through the tailgate area in full uniform 90 minutes before kickoff. The players would then sit inside the stadium locker room for 45 minutes before warm-ups, getting stiff or bored. Harbaugh didn't see why. He also didn't understand why the team had to use the bench on the sunny side of the field to bake in the heat of a hot autumn afternoon, or why the practice field did not have a tarped fence for privacy. More Stanford traditions, he was told. Doyle was sympathetic, but he didn't know if administrators or alums would agree to change those traditions.
"But in a one-year period, he was able to accomplish changing all three things," Doyle said. "He was willing to write or visit the correct people or exchange emails or make phone calls or do whatever was necessary to get it done."
That story sounded familiar to Snyder, the USD administrator whose office was frequently visited by Harbaugh, making a special request. Snyder often had to say no.
"From a human standpoint, there are times when it can wear you out," Snyder said. "But the pieces of his personality that tire you out are the same ones that make him so successful. ... I truly believe he's going to win a Super Bowl. If not this year, then another year."
Well, why not this year? The 49ers' turnaround was stunning. But there were clues. Because of the labor lockout, the 49ers were not able to hold summer minicamps, at which their new offense and defensive principles could be installed in gradual steps. That's how it is usually done. So when summer training camp began, Harbaugh decided to make them learn everything, all at once. The players now understand the method.
"It just put pressure on you to study harder," fullback Moran Norris said.
"It made everybody stay on point, especially the younger guys," said
offensive tackle Joe Staley. "It taught them good habits. You'd go home in training camp after practice and stay up until 11 p.m., reading the playbook."
Pro football players, for the most part, want two things. One, coaches who are consistent. And two, game plans that work. The 49ers soon realized that Harbaugh's full-frontal style was sincere -- and that his staff's weekly strategy choices were smart and gave the team a better-than-even chance to win.
So after winning 13 of 16 regular season games, here come the playoffs. The Harbaugh method is an underdog against the Saints. Snyder thinks Harbaugh must be delighted by that.
"I think he has learned," Snyder said, "that what drives him is the pursuit of what other people say is unattainable."
The Harbaugh method scoffs at the unattainable. Which is why the unattainable could be in big trouble Saturday.