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Jim Harbaugh knows what buttons to push

San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, right,

San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, right, shouts during practice in Santa Clara, Calif. (Jan. 5, 2012) Credit: AP

SEATTLE - He threw passes for Bo Schembechler, a coach who emphasized the run. He delights in throwing everybody out of their usual routine. What Jim Harbaugh will never do, however, is throw anyone under the bus.

Ask him a seemingly innocuous question about the team he coaches, the San Francisco 49ers, and on occasion he'll respond tersely with the briefest of answers. Moments later, almost a different person, Harbaugh will be asking the question: "Who was better, Babe Ruth or Willie Mays?"

Harbaugh, son and brother of a coach, a quarterback who was a first-round pick in 1987 by the Chicago Bears, knows football. He also -- this is a part of his M.O. -- knows how to get under one's skin.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who will face the 49ers in Sunday's NFC Championship Game, once asked Harbaugh during a postgame handshake, "What's your deal?" That was 2009, when Harbaugh's Stanford team went for a two-point conversion that failed late in a 55-21 blowout of Carroll's USC squad.

Harbaugh told Sports Illustrated that when he was at Michigan, he was in "the Notre Dame [butt]-kicking business." Now he wants to kick everyone's rears and rattle their brains.

Only last Sunday, with the 49ers leading the Carolina Panthers 23-10 and only 23 seconds remaining in the divisional playoff game, Harbaugh called a fake punt, having Andy Lee throw a pass -- which was incomplete.

Harbaugh said the other day there is no feud between him and Carroll, who took over Seattle in 2010, a year before Harbaugh went to the 49ers.

"Animosity?" Harbaugh said. "No, erroneous, erroneous. It's football. It's competition. It's winning."

And Harbaugh has been a winner. As a player, he helped get Michigan to the 1987 Rose Bowl. As a coach, he made winners out of the University of San Diego, Stanford (1-11 before Harbaugh arrived in 2007) and the 49ers (6-10 before Harbaugh came).

What's Harbaugh's best quality, someone asked receiver Anquan Boldin. "The fact that he played the game," Boldin said.

And at age 50, he still wants to play, saying the other day he'd trade his house, even his bachelor's degree, to be in uniform again.

When he was named Stanford's coach, Harbaugh -- who went to high school across the street in Palo Alto -- took on his alma mater, insisting Michigan's athletic department "has ways to get borderline guys in and when they're in, they steer them" to a less demanding academic routine.

He'll knock his old school, but not his athletes. Even days before trading flawed 2012 No. 1 pick A.J. Jenkins to Kansas City, Harbaugh told journalists that Jenkins was making great progress.

That Harbaugh was sympathetic to defensive end Aldon Smith, who went through alcohol rehab this past fall, is understandable. According to the 2008 Stanford Alumni magazine, Harbaugh, while at San Diego in October 2005, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor after being arrested and charged with drunken driving.

"I think that made me a better counselor than I was before," he said in the magazine.

Harbaugh quotes Winston Churchill and Chinese philosophers. He drove a car in the San Francisco Giants' 2012 World Series victory parade. He played in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am two days after the 49ers were beaten by Baltimore in Super Bowl XLVII last February.

Yet he showed up for the Super Bowl Friday coaches' session in workout attire while his brother, Ravens coach John Harbaugh, was in the expected coat and tie.

"I hope to be very underestimated," Harbaugh once said. "I've always found that to be a wonderful competitive advantage."

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