Colin Kaepernick

From Ric Flair to a “happy flight” home – the anatomy of a successful Jim Harbaugh-led road trip

The perception is that the San Francisco 49ers face a daunting, inconvenient and exceedingly difficult road to the Super Bowl because they would probably have to win three road games to get there. That is certainly true, especially since Green Bay, Carolina and Seattle are strong teams who — like most teams — play better at home. But Jim Harbaugh, who was in a fantastic mood during his press conference today, seems like he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Jim Harbaugh 49ers standing straightThe 49ers’ record on the road (including two playoff wins) is 19-7 since Harbaugh took over, a winning percentage of .731. Based on what he said today about the team’s and his own personal experience traveling to one of the roughest environments the franchise has ever faced in Green Bay, it’s clear that part of the reason for the 49ers’ road success comes from Harbaugh’s attitude.

He loves winning on the road. Obviously he loves winning everywhere, and today he responded to a question about the team’s recent string of close victories with a funny line: “Winning is never an irritant.” As in, it’s not at all irritating when a game goes down to the wire … as long as it ends with a San Francisco victory. But Harbaugh feels something extra for his players (and within himself, clearly) when they go into an “us against the world” scenario and emerge triumphant.

People may disagree, but personally, as a player and what that meant for the players, I was happy and ecstatic for them. Because I haven’t found anything that makes you feel more like a man then to go and not only beat your opponent, but you’re beating their crowd. And then, the elements in a playoff game. Both teams have to beat the elements. But in a playoff game, to beat the elements, to beat the opposing team, to beat the opposing crowd, nothing makes you feel like a man like that.

Harbaugh takes every part of a road trip as an opportunity to grow closer and relish even the tedious parts, like being trapped in some hotel in a freezing town that some players may not particularly care for. When one of the team leaders makes a request that could lighten the mood a little and provide some extra motivation during an otherwise dreary evening, the 49ers happily oblige.

“Justin Smith made a comment during the week. ‘It’d be great if we could get Ric Flair to come to the game,’ Jeff Ferguson, our trainer and some of the guys in our support staff reached out to Mr. Flair,” Harbaugh said.

“Got the red blood pumping the night before the game, which was good.”

Getting a squad mentally ready to enjoy what most teams in all sports consider a arduous task is one thing, but having the right players obviously helps. Today Harbaugh spent a good portion of his press conference complimenting Colin Kaepernick, “A FOOT-BALL PLAYER” who also happens to be a better bad weather quarterback than Harbaugh imagined.

“I didn’t envision when he was drafted how unbelievably effective he’d be on a bad field,” said Harbaugh, who praised his quarterback’s footing, ability to move quicker than anyone else, and throw “piercing” passes that make wind and rain an afterthought.

Harbaugh’s postgame speeches, videos of which are made available to the public by the 49ers after wins (you can check out yesterday’s speech here), are always a little more enthusiastic after road victories.

One thing he mentions fairly often is the “happy flight” back home. I asked him about last night’s flight, specifically when he turns the page from the euphoria of a win to his preparations for the 49ers’ next opponent. The answer — which included a lot of details about how Harbaugh spends these flights — was kind of surprising.

For me it’s about by the time we land. But you talk about a happy flight. Everybody experiences a happy flight in their own way. For me, it’s talk to the players, have some conversations on the plane. I sit there in my seat, I’ve got the video of the game. Also, our planes have TV so we can watch highlights of some of the other games. If a highlight comes on that I want to see, I press pause on my video. Just sitting there, just me. And all I need now is a cup of coffee and just happy as I could possibly be, doing those things. When I run out of the video to watch, then I start watching Carolina tape and the mood starts to change as we start to land and we start focusing on the Carolina Panthers. It’s a happy flight for me. Other people may experience that happy flight in a different way, but that’s how I do it. It’s very nice.

My assumption was that while the players may get to take a little time to rest and bask in the afterglow, the coaches are hard at work. You’re either getting better or you’re getting worse, right? But maybe that’s part of how Harbaugh encourages his team (and himself) to see road trips as an opportunity for fun instead of something to be survived. As a player, if you see your coach having a blast on the ride home, it’s probably that much easier to look forward to those “happy flights” yourself.

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