Jim Harbaugh may be abrasive, but he's a winner
SAN FRANCISCO -- The late Bill Walsh was described as a coach who not only would strip you bare but pick his teeth with your bones.
Jim Harbaugh keeps a photo of Walsh on his computer screen.
"I just like being the guy who throws rocks at the beehive every now and then," second-year 49ers coach Harbaugh has said.
He takes nothing lightly and seemingly everything personally, as indicated by his response to the statement by Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride that 49ers defensive end Justin Smith "gets away with murder."
The Giants and 49ers will play Sunday afternoon at Candlestick Park for a third time in 11 months. Three miles away at AT&T Park, the other Giants -- baseball's San Francisco Giants -- will meet the St. Louis Cardinals in an NLCS game a couple of hours later.
Harbaugh cares about that one, too. Harbaugh cares about everything. He was raised by his father, Jack, also a coach, to exhibit "an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.'' Jim Harbaugh, 48, will challenge and taunt and toss out a pile of adjectives.
Then there was the case of retired quarterback Jim Kelly who, as a radio announcer in 1997, insulted Harbaugh when he was a quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts. Later, at a game that Kelly was commentating on, Harbaugh threw a right hand to Kelly's jaw, resulting in a broken right hand.
To Gilbride's contention that Smith is a dirty player, Harbaugh said, "It's an incendiary comment targeting one of the exemplary players in this league." A man on the website Deadspin suggested "taking away Harbaugh's thesaurus and dictionary."
Nobody's taking away his attitude. When at Stanford, where in his short stay he turned a 1-11 team at an academic school into a 12-1 team, Harbaugh went for a two-point conversion late in a 55-21 win over USC. That had then- Trojans coach Pete Carroll asking during the postgame handshake, "What's your deal?"
Harbaugh's deal is to be abrasive. He likes opponents to be uncomfortable. Another postgame handshake, this one in 2011 with Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz after a last-minute 49ers win, included a back slap that Schwartz interpreted as a kick in the pants.
When receiver Michael Crabtree was accused of an illegal push-off before the catch that set up the winning field goal against the Seahawks -- coached by Carroll -- last Christmas Eve, Harbaugh snapped, "Any comment like that is full of baloney."
The 49ers hadn't had a winning season for eight years until Harbaugh arrived in 2011, and they made it to the NFC Championship Game before losing to the Giants in overtime.
"Instead of being intense and crazy," offensive lineman Alex Boone said of Harbaugh, "he's intense and gets into the game."
Harbaugh treats midweek news conferences as if they were discussions of atomic secrets, disclosing very little. Moments later, he'll ask a reporter who was a better baseball player, Willie Mays -- whom Harbaugh brought to practice a few days ago -- or Babe Ruth.
His machismo is always in full view. "Football,'' Harbaugh has said, "is the greatest game ever invented. It works every muscle in your body . . . It tests a man's courage."
Trent Dilfer, now an ESPN analyst but previously a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, described Harbaugh's style this way: "He takes guys who think they are tough and makes them really tough."