After Greg Roman, Mike Iupati and Alex Smith stepped to the podium, the media was allowed in the 49ers locker room for about a half hour or so. Since not many players were in there, the media guys mostly talked amongst themselves. Then Jim Harbaugh breezed past us.
“Greatest quote ever,” he said.
Harbaugh told us that about 25 of the players were napping in the lounge, almost to let us know that we wouldn’t have much luck in the locker room. Then, almost like a tour guide taking pity on us poor scribes with nothing to do, Harbaugh brought us over to a double-doorway where two 49er-logoed curtains separated the locker room from the indoor weight room. He pointed to a whiteboard, which contained several quotes written in black marker.
The one on top read: “SHOW CLASS, HAVE PRIDE AND DISPLAY CHARACTER. IF YOU DO, WINNING TAKES CARE OF ITSELF.” It’s a Bear Bryant quote, and said so above.
Below that was Bo Schembechler’s famous “WE WIN AS A TEAM. THE TEAM, THE TEAM, THE TEAM.” quote, of which Harbaugh is known to be extra fond.
Underneath Schembechler’s quote, it read like this:
THERE IS A RIGHT WAY
THERE IS A WRONG WAY
THERE IS A BETTER WAY
THE FORTY NINER WAY
Not surprisingly, there was the ever-present quote that’s most often cited whenever people have spoken about the San Francisco 49ers since Jim Harbaugh took over: WHO’S GOT IT BETTER THAN US? NOBODY!”
To the right of the whiteboard five cards were lined up vertically for each day of the week, denoting which player’s turn it was to come up with that day’s quote. Each player is responsible for providing a quote at some point; the names are drawn by Michael Crabtree. Quotes are “not always football specific,” said Harbaugh, who also added that the team takes “a lot of pride” in their whiteboard tradition.
Today it was Isaac Sopoaga who chose the Bryant quote, which was the one Harbaugh referred to as the greatest. Harbaugh also pointed out how the way the word “NOBODY” was written on the board — block-lettering shaded with red marker — is a Sopoaga trademark.
That prompted Harbaugh to stroll over to Sopoaga’s locker. Sopoaga had just sat down, but he obliged his coach and walked over to us, black notebook in hand.
“Nobody in the history of football has done this with a notebook,” Harbaugh said.
Then he leafed through Sopoaga’s notebook. While Sopaga’s penmanship was quite neat, it was undeniably masculine (put it this way: you won’t find any bubbly looking letters or circles dotting the i’s in there). None of us know enough about the 49ers’ defensive playbook to have the slightest inkling what anything on those pages meant, but the way it was put together was strikingly intricate. Each page was divided up into different quadrants — each with headlines featuring that same shaded block lettering we saw with “NOBODY,” with paragraphs underneath. No space wasted on each page, no words crossed out. Words upon words, creating patterns. Sopoaga said that taking notes the way he does allows him to retain information visually.
I asked Sopoaga if he’s an artist in other ways. Sopoaga said he doesn’t draw but considers himself an artist, as he designs t-shirts as well as his tattoos. He lifted up his leg to show a design around his right ankle that he came up with. Sopoaga also said his style of writing came reading speeches ministers in Samoa wrote for their Sunday sermons.
Sopoaga’s background isn’t just interesting, it’s made him a starting defensive lineman on one of the best defenses in the NFL. He spoke at a press conference last week, and talked about how rowing plays a major part of his offseason training regimen, which he called harder than training camp. “When I go home to Samoa, I don’t relax,” he said.
“Rowing, it’s not easy. You have to run four miles in the morning, you row eight miles out, eight miles in four times. That’s 40-plus miles in under three hours. Then you have to run two miles home, and then you only rest four hours, then you do the same thing. It’s like double-days,” said Sopoaga, who maintains that rowing and running is harder than training camp because, “You’re barefooted.”
Back to Harbaugh, who strives to keep opposing coaching staffs off balance but also succeeds in the same fashion with the media.
Nobody knows what to expect from the 49ers head coach on any given day. Sometimes he chides the group for asking too many “obvious” questions. I’ve also heard him praise Matt Maiocco for making an “astute” point after this season’s first preseason game. He’ll brush aside any concerns posed by reporters questioning the secretive attitudes toward practice and injury status, then he’ll literally pull back the curtain and show the same reporters the team’s bulletin board material and how it’s generated. On days like today, it’s easier to see exactly how the 49ers have made the turnaround they have so quickly.