The San Francisco 49ers are guaranteed to be at least a .500 team which in itself makes Jim Harbaugh’s first year a spectacular success. Last year, every one of the Niners’ six wins were against NFC West and AFC West opponents. This year, the Niners are 7-0 against teams that play in the eastern time zone.
It’s a whole new world for the 49ers and a region starved for professional football greatness for a decade after gorging on it for 20 years. And to think none of this would have occurred unless Jed York hired Harbaugh to replace Mike Singletary and repair a culture.
There aren’t very many former NFL quarterbacks who’ve become successful NFL head coaches, and it’s supposed to be near impossible for college head coaches to handle the same job in the NFL. Even former NFL quarterbacks who tried to make the transition from college to the pros have had trouble, like Steve Spurrier.
The 49ers are a great story, due in large part to Harbaugh. The road Harbaugh took to get to this point is quite a story, too:
Western Kentucky, Assistant Coach (1994-2001): Harbaugh had a long NFL career, but he was earning extra credit every offseason during the last seven years he played in the NFL, as an unpaid assistant for his dad’s team. Jim recruited players and worked as an offensive consultant for Jack Harbaugh’s squad, and recruited several players that played on Western Kentucky’s Division I-AA National Championship team.
Oakland Raiders, Quarterbacks Coach (2002-03): Rich Gannon had an outstanding season the year before Harbaugh arrived, raising his completion percentage from 60.0% in 2000 to 65.8% and passing for 3,828 yards (7.0 Y/A), 27 TD, 9 INT and a QB rating of 95.5. In ’02 Gannon completed 67.6% of his passes and racked up a league-leading 4,689 yards (7.6 Y/A), 26 TD, 10 INT and made first-team All-Pro for the second time in three years. Serving under Bill Callahan on that ’02 Raiders team remains the closest Harbaugh’s come to winning a championship.
University of San Diego, Head Coach (2004-06): The Toreros weren’t a bad team before Harbaugh took over, going 8-2 in ’03. They went 7-4 in Harbaugh’s first year, but followed that with two consecutive 11-1 seasons. Harbaugh also recruited Josh Johnson, who threw 43 touchdown passes and only 1 interception (and rushed for 726 yards) in the season after Harbaugh left. Johnson was drafted in the fifth round of the 2008 NFL Draft by Tampa Bay, and rumors that the 49ers have interest in trading for Johnson have swirled since Harbaugh came to San Francisco.
Stanford University, Head Coach (2007-10): Unlike San Diego, Stanford was a complete disaster before Harbaugh arrived, going 1-11 under Walt Harris. At the time of his hire, Harbaugh was considered a relative coaching unknown with maniacal intensity, whose strongest quality was how he was able to mold a dominant football team out of athletes who were held to higher academic standards.
Harbaugh came in and led Stanford on a steady but fast climb to dominance that has mirrored his coaching career. 4-8 the first year. 5-7 in 2008. 8-5 in ’09, including Stanford’s first bowl appearance since the 2001 Seattle Bowl. The Cardinal finished 11-1 and won the Orange Bowl in a rout over Virginia Tech, spurring an NFL bidding war for Harbaugh that York won.
It was the biggest win of York’s life thus far, one that leaves the Niners’ owner and their fans wondering if the ultimate win might not be far behind.
While one of Harbaugh’s many catch phrases is “it’s about the team,” which you can see in full effect straight from Michael Crabtree’s Twitter feed:
But while the 49ers were a talented team before Harbaugh arrived after years of high draft choices (perhaps now we know why Harbaugh chose the 49ers over other seemingly rosier situations like Miami, who reportedly flew out to the Bay Area to convince Harbaugh to come coach the Dolphins), they weren’t a true team. Great talent helps make great coaches. However, it’s even harder to wade through a culture of losing, confusion, distrust and hurt feelings to create a foundation as strong as Harbaugh has than to put together a few good drafts.
We’ve seen it this year in wins against the Bengals, Eagles, Lions and now the Giants — the line between winning and losing in the NFL is tenuous. And if a team’s mental and emotional foundations aren’t strong, losses compound and supposedly good squads can fall apart (Tampa Bay is a great example; they were on the rise last year and now they hate each other).
This is mostly the same 49ers team that we saw flounder for years, and Mike Singletary’s staff was known by many as one of the worst — or at least the most primitive in terms of schemes and coaching techniques — in the NFL. But Harbaugh’s staff hasn’t improved the 49ers’ fortunes incrementally, they’ve already won two more games than last year with seven games remaining.
Much credit is due to the staff around Harbaugh, but remember this: coaches don’t align themselves with guys they think can’t coach. Harbaugh has been an outstanding recruiter since he helped his dad bring players to Western Kentucky; he’s clearly an outstanding recruiter of coaches, too.
Nobody thought the 49ers would be even a half-decent team after the lockout, they’re a very good team that may prove to be great in Harbaugh’s first year. Sure, Harbaugh could win with all-world QB Andrew Luck. But nobody thought Alex Smith would be anything more than a serviceable quarterback, and now he has the full respect of his team and his opponents, and carries himself with an air of confidence that nobody’s seen since his college days.
None of this seemed plausible. That is, until you look at Harbaugh’s coaching career. Is the 49ers’ 8-1 record all that crazy compared to the idea of a guy becoming a head coach in the NFL only five years after coaching at the University of San Diego?