I didn’t have any real access to the 49ers at all this season, besides the last training camp practice open to the media. It was a pretty vanilla practice, and Alex Smith wasn’t particularly sharp. I certainly had no idea I was watching a winning team, let alone a group that would narrowly miss reaching Super Bowl XLVI.
One topic was on the minds of many writers covering the team full-time that sunny afternoon — the fact that it was the last practice they’d be able to watch from the nearest sideline. Jim Harbaugh was unapologetically closing off the kind of access reporters had enjoyed under all the previous 49ers regimes.
After Harbaugh’s press conference he chatted not-so-amiably with the assembled media about the new restrictions. From close range I saw Harbaugh brush off their concerns in a fairly smug manner, but that wasn’t anything new. Harbaugh was a prickly character with the media during his Stanford days, too. I found the spirited exchange rather funny. Still do.
Harbaugh’s won thousands upon thousands fans in the Bay Area who credit him with making 49ers football not just relevant, but great once again. He’s had the opposite effect on several members of the local media. After that practice and what transpired afterward, I remember telling friends and family: “If the 49ers start slow, the local guys are going to be all over Harbaugh.”
Harbaugh never slipped up, unless you count taking the points in Week 2 against Dallas after that penalty. There were some quibbles people had with the 49ers’ offensive playcalling and unwillingness to go for it on 4th down against New York on Sunday. However, that was during an NFC Championship Game that nobody outside the organization expected the 49ers to host until the Giants took a 10-point lead midway through the 4th quarter in Green Bay.
Harbaugh’s going to win Coach of the Year. Teams that finish an entire season without being severely outplayed in a single game are rare, and the 49ers’ constant respectability during Harbaugh’s rookie season kept reporters from getting back at him for all the times he made them feel small.
Harbaugh did lose the NFC Championship Game though, and it was a home loss. Less than 24 hours later Lowell “Pinky” Cohn saw his one shining moment during Harbaugh’s Monday press conference, and he wasn’t going to let it go to waste. He penned 914 words insulting Harbaugh, who he labeled an 11-year-old (but hey, no offense — Cohn’s “extremely fond of 11-year-olds”).
I call Cohn “Pinky” because he recently hijacked a Harbaugh press conference on the week of the NFC Championship Game to ask about the busted pinky on Harbaugh’s throwing hand. It was a college injury, and while it’s a cute little note to bring up for those who are just getting to know the 49ers’ head coach, the line of questioning was one Cohn could’ve pursued at any time during the season. Cohn’s timing was terrible, and his banter with Harbaugh elicited groans from many watching or listening, including yours truly.
Reporters can ask whatever they want, and Cohn has the right to write his columns how he sees fit, with a voice that is truly unique. Cohn has that going for him, the fact that his writing style is distinct and thought-provoking (plus he’s been around forever, which is a huge advantage around here).
The barrage of pinky questions was aggravating because it was clear that Cohn had a column idea in mind before the press conference started, and he was going to take as much time as necessary to get some quotes to support his narrative. Even if that narrative had absolutely nothing to do with the NFL Playoffs.
Back to Monday’s press conference. Here’s Cohn’s description of the events (emphasis and footnotes are mine).
On Monday, Harbaugh held his season wrap-up news conference and it was revealing in ways Harbaugh probably doesn’t understand. (1) Near the end of the session, the Chronicle’s Eric Branch, who used to work for The Press Democrat, asked an easy-to-answer human-interest question. (2)
“How did you spend your time after the game? What did you do last night?”
Harbaugh shot Branch a look as if Branch had asked about Harbaugh’s sex life. (2a) Harbaugh giggled nervously.
“I was a …” He giggled again. “Is this California?” he demanded. “Where everybody just wants to know how you feel, what you thought, how you did, how your pinky feels?”
The pinky reference was a direct shot at me. I was the pinky asker. Harbaugh stood there, his jaw rigid. (3)
“You’re part Californian,” I reminded him.
Harbaugh still didn’t answer.
“We want to hear an answer to the question,” I told Harbaugh. (4)
“You demand an answer to the question?” he said.
I imagined the prepubescent buzz in the voice of an 11-year-old as he blew off his mommy.
“You’re not the boss of me. I don’t have to tell you if I don’t want to.”
“I’m requesting,” I said. “I would never demand from you. Share with us what you did last night if you feel comfortable doing it.” (5)
“I don’t. I don’t feel comfortable.”
“Is that a California thing?” I asked.
“It’s a Midwestern thing,” he said proudly. And with that, he exited the room and the season, stage left.
(1) “Come here, Jim. Sit on Daddy Lowell’s knee so he can explain to you the finer points of psychology and what it means to be an adult.”
(2, 2a) How is a question “easy-to-answer” if he was speaking during a high-profile press conference and the answer could’ve very well had to do with his sex life? Who knows, maybe the way Harbaugh deals with losing the most important game of his coaching career is by getting down with wife. Perhaps he ate seven Hot Pockets and drank a gallon of Sunny D. Or drove around until the sun came up, listening to Ke$ha. None of these NFL coaches want us to think they’re doing anything besides drawing up plays and sleeping on cots in their offices, so why is it so hard to believe that Harbaugh doesn’t want to answer this question?
(3) “That cretin was about to beat me up!”
(4) Fast forward to the 10:10 mark in the video seen here and you can see/hear the end of the presser. Cohn conveniently leaves out how he actually said “Wait a minute. We want to hear an answer to the question.” Why would he leave out “Wait a minute”? Probably because that would alert the reader how at that point the press conference had officially jumped off the rails, and Harbaugh knew his best recourse was a round of verbal jostling and some guffaws without any quotes that could come back to bite him.
(5) Correct me if I’m wrong, but what I heard was something more like this: “I would never demand from you, you’re so powerful. Share with us what you did last night if you feel comfortable doing it.” The non-Harbaugh audio is a little choppy, but I’m certain the word “powerful” was uttered by Cohn. I’m not a journalism professor by any means, but if Cohn omitted something from the middle of a quote like that, shouldn’t some ellipses been involved? Or at least something like, “I would never demand from you,” I responded with journalistic integrity and keen insight into the human condition. “Share with us what you did last night if you feel comfortable doing it.”?
If Cohn’s going to put words in Harbaugh’s mouth (“’You’re not the boss of me. I don’t have to tell you if I don’t want to.’”) and assign those words the most insulting tone possible (“I imagined the prepubescent buzz in the voice of an 11-year-old as he blew off his mommy.”), shouldn’t he quote himself honestly, especially when anyone who wants to do the work can access video and audio of the conversation he’s recounting?
Do you care if writers and analysts like the figures they’re covering? I couldn’t care less, which is why I never plan on using this space or any other to further my own personal vendettas against athletes or coaches. It’s petty. Question their actions? Sure. Obsess over why a guy isn’t smiling while offering me nugget upon nugget of useful information? No thanks.
Cohn definitely doesn’t like Harbaugh, and he’s hardly the only media employee to feel this way (I’ve heard several writers complain about Harbaugh over the past year). That “powerful” line Cohn omitted from his column shed light on how many feel. They don’t like that Harbaugh keeps winning, and relish any opportunity to take him down. From a blog post Cohn wrote yesterday in response to the backlash Cohn’s “Harbaugh is 11 years old” column elicited via comments and emails:
I always try to be polite in my tone when I am with Harbaugh or any sports figure I cover. I appreciate when they are polite in return. Some are. Some aren’t. Harbaugh is not a polite man. If you had to cover him, you would know that.
Don’t you see, you non-media-credential having peons? Harbaugh’s a total jerk. You should be mad at him, not Daddy Lowell!
Cohn sees himself as the guy who needs to keep Harbaugh in line. He sees himself as the guy who needs to stand up for his fellow writers, who’ve been abused by Harbaugh ever since he stepped onto The Farm. The old nerd-vs.-jock cliché.
In reality, Cohn’s taking out his own frustrations on Harbaugh because the coach isn’t playing along. Cohn has a “human-interest” formula he likes to follow, and his questions — often irrelevant to the news of the day/week or what others are asking during Harbaugh’s press conferences — aren’t getting answers or a lot of respect. Harbaugh’s California rant wasn’t about California, it was a response to Cohn’s pinky questions from the week before.
Now Cohn’s getting attention. I guess I’m contributing. Gregg Rosenthal of Pro Football Talk didn’t exactly take sides, but noted that “a column like this indicates there will be some fireworks in the years to come between Harbaugh and the local media.” Can’t disagree with Rosenthal there.
This morning Jim Rome cracked on Harbaugh for acting as if Californians are soft while reaping the benefits of working here. Rome probably didn’t watch the press conference, so grains of salt are prescribed in his case … but Cohn definitely got what he wanted — even if the comments following his original column were almost unanimously against his line of thinking. He painted Harbaugh as a petulant child, and many who haven’t watched the interplay between Harbaugh and Cohn all year (always cringe-worthy) are taking Cohn’s self-serving ideas as absolute truths.
Since Cohn can’t even quote himself accurately and clearly has a vendetta against Harbaugh, perhaps Cohn would see the true 11-year-old if he looked into a mirror.