After the last 49ers practice with full media availability, near the end of training camp, Jim Harbaugh met informally with a group of reporters. The scribes were wondering (complaining, really) about their access to 49ers practices getting stripped away like a football held by Jeremy Maclin. After all, there were never any problems when the media had access to practices before.
I didn’t have a recorder or my camera on, so I’m paraphrasing, but Harbaugh’s response went like this:
“Yeah, they never did it this way before. Think about that,” Harbaugh said as he started walking away with a smirk on his face. “They never did it this way before. Just think about that for a second.” As he walked away, one of the beat writers mentioned how it wasn’t a problem for Bill Walsh. But Harbaugh was already more than 20 feet away, his point made loud and clear.
And that point wasn’t just that the 49ers were going to be a more secretive team in terms of showing what goes on during practice or providing injury information. It was that Harbaugh was brought in to clean up the messes made by the previous head coaches, and he knows he can do a better job. And his players do, too.
Tim Kawakami wrote this yesterday:
(Alex) Smith had an oblique but interesting answer when he was asked why the 49ers are winning the kind of close games now that you would have lost in recent seasons.
“I don’t know,” Smith said with a wry smile. “What do you guys think?”
I detected a subtle, unspoken reference to the fumbling Mike Nolan-Mike Singletary regimes, though, of course, Smith would never be so blunt as to say so exactly.
He didn’t have to.
Harbaugh went on ESPN yesterday, where he was asked (by Eric Mangini, I think) if it’s different to communicate with college kids compared to coaching men in the NFL. Harbaugh said it’s not that different, because he and his coaching staff are conveying a “football message.” He also said that there were several veterans with heart and toughness, guys who were hungry and “tired of getting their butts kicked,” so they were ready and happy to be coached. Harbaugh didn’t say they were ready to learn from coaches who actually know what they’re talking about, but he may as well have.
I ate lunch at Flippers in Hayes Valley with David Fucillo (lead editor at Niners Nation and SB Nation Bay Area) yesterday, and told him my thoughts on Harbaugh. The sometimes dismissive way Harbaugh talks to the media doesn’t really bother me, because I’ve seen him up close when he coached at Stanford. Seeing how he interacted with the players, along with info from my cousin Heather (who didn’t go to Stanford but knew all the players and coaches) told me Harbaugh is a pretty cool guy behind the scenes. He just knows there’s no benefit to showing off his personality to the beat writers, although he flashes his charm from time to time on his radio show.
Fooch told me I had to check out Harbaugh’s postgame speech in Philly, and he sure was right. I’m ready to go tackle someone after watching that (you also have to check out Jed York, who really does look like a young Eddie D. with the way he hugs Frank Gore in the locker room).
Joshua Morgan (who’s a tremendous interview subject, by the way) went on KNBR yesterday and had some interesting things to say in this exchange with Gary Radnich about Harbaugh’s postgame speech:
Radnich: I know you don’t want to say anything bad about Singletary because that’s not right.
Radnich: You know what I’m saying. A guy’s in the Hall of Fame, you don’t want to mess with a guy like that. But I am curious, did Singletary give similar speeches to Harbaugh’s?
Morgan: Um, he probably did. Singletary was a great speaker, but I think the thing with Singletary was that he told his speeches too soon. Like he’d tell his speeches, like he was just one of those guys that whatever was on his heart he had to just spit it out like now, he couldn’t just save it. So he’d have like a great speech for us, but he’d give it on like a Tuesday or on our day off.
Radnich: So in the best sense of the word, Harbaugh’s a little more conniving, huh?
Morgan: Yeah, most definitely, most definitely. He saves his best speeches for right before the game.
Harbaugh walked into what in many ways was a very unattractive situation. The Niners haven’t been to the playoffs since 2002. The lockout kept Harbaugh from instilling the changes he knew were necessary until right before the season started. Alex Smith was considered the team’s anchor, but there were still no better options to man the most important position in the sport. Locker room politics were toxic under Nolan, and didn’t get much better under Singletary.
Instead of getting crushed by all of these things, Harbaugh (at least so far) has taken turned these disadvantages into strengths. The lockout made it so that expectations were as low as they could get for a new coach making $5 million per year, and now he has the team believing in themselves and him. Harbaugh was right. They never did it this way before, and the players were more than ready for a change.