I interviewed Jim Harbaugh in his office the other day. Here is a partial transcript of our conversation which lasted 25 minutes. I left out a long section of Harbaugh talking about Bill Walsh. I will use that material in my Sunday column.

Cohn: What is your day like now? How do you spend your time?

Harbaugh: On the draft. Schematically on offense for the most part. Also scheduling – practice schedules for the minicamps, OTAs. I spend most of the day on the draft with a small part of the day putting the finishing touches on our playbook and then practice schedules, daily, weekly, minute by minute of how our practices will go. And then the other thing I’ve been taking an hour out of each day to watch the Bill Walsh tapes we’ve gathered. It’s a full day.

Cohn: How many hours?

Harbaugh: Right now 14 each day.

Cohn: Explain how you prepare for the draft.

Harbaugh: You’re looking at the college players position by position, better best, ranking them. Starting to think about how it will play out in the draft. You can’t really predict that.

Cohn: You say you plan schedules. That’s an act of faith given the labor impasse.

Harbaugh: You’ve got to have the plan. What happens if they say, ‘You have minicamp tomorrow?’ ‘Ah, shoot, we’re not prepared. Let’s load the guys up on the bus and go play paint ball instead.’ (Harbaugh laughs.) Wouldn’t work. Got to be prepared.

Cohn: When you took over, what were your initial tasks?

Harbaugh: Evaluating the team, hiring the staff. To hire the staff took two to three weeks. Then evaluating the team took that long and then longer. That went into evaluating for free agency.

Cohn: How good is the current squad?

Harbaugh: I think we have a very good nucleus that will be good for us in the future.

Cohn: I’m going to slow you down. It’s kind of a vague answer. Good for us in the future could mean C+

Harbaugh: Bodes well for us. A good nucleus. Very excited about the team we have and I think it’s a very good nucleus and yes we will build on it and I think that bodes very well for us.

Cohn: You’ve said nice things about Alex Smith. What do you like about him?

Harbaugh: I like him as a football player. I like him as a person. I like being around him.

Cohn: I’m going to slow you down again if you don’t mind. When you say I like him as a football player, I mean you were a quarterback and you’re smart about quarterbacks. So when you say as a football player you mean as a quarterback. What good attributes does he have?

Harbaugh: The ability to play the position, the DNA to play the position, physical skills to play the position, the mental capacity to play the position.

Cohn: It’s never demonstrated itself to the full. You could get those things out of him?

Harbaugh: That would be the intent, yes.

Cohn: You’re not lacking in confidence about being able to do things like that.

Harbaugh: No, I’m not.

Cohn: I think you’re an incredibly confident guy. Do you perceive yourself as a confident guy?

Harbaugh: I feel good about doing the job, yeah. And I feel confident in doing my job. I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘Humility prevents me from saying there’s nobody better.’ I’m sure maybe there is. It’s irrelevant to talk about.

Cohn: Who’s the best quarterback you ever say?

Harbaugh: (He takes a long time to answer). Best quarterback I’ve ever seen? What, played with, played against?

Cohn: I don’t care – saw on television, played against, are aware of and visually experienced.

Harbaugh: (laughing) I’m not going to say one. There’s many. It’s not important to me to rank the best quarterback I’ve ever seen.

Cohn: What did you like about Joe Montana?

Harbaugh: What was there not to like about Joe Montana? I liked everything about him.

Cohn: I know what Bill Walsh told me he liked. (Harbaugh looks interested.) It was how precise he was, how every throw was exactly where it had to be and right on the money. Bill would tell me that all the time.

Harbaugh: You’re correct in that evaluation.

Cohn: What did you like about Steve Young?

Harbaugh: You’re talking about two great Hall of Fame quarterbacks. I liked everything about him. Very precise.

Cohn: Were you?

Harbaugh: No, not in the same ballpark.

Cohn: You were a fiery guy. You are. I’ve seen you.

Harbaugh laughs.

Cohn: Is it an asset being fiery?

Harbaugh: I think it’s an asset to be competitive. I just love what I’m doing. I’m very passionate, very fiery, very competitive at the things that are important to me. Football is one of the most important things to me and always has been.

Cohn: Would you rather complete a screen pass for five yards or run your back up the middle for five yards?

Harbaugh: No preference. We’d like to have the ability to do both.

Cohn: Will you call the plays?

Harbaugh: (He hesitates.) Greg Roman, our offensive coordinator will call the plays. It’s not at all a sensitive topic. That’s my fault for getting that expression (on his face). It’s got some complexity to it. My easiest way to say it is Greg Roman will call the plays.

Cohn: Are the 49ers still a top brand?

Harbaugh: Football is so pure. That’s what I love about it. We won 37 percent of our games the last eight years so we’re not No. 1. That is what we’re fighting for. That’s where we want to be. That’s the expectation here because the bar has been set so high by — start with Bill Walsh, George Seifert, the Hall of Fame players. ‘Where else would you want it to be set?’ is my response to that. When you walk in the door you get fired up seeing the Lombardi trophies. It’s on our shoulders and we have the opportunity to go chase that same glory.

Cohn: What does it mean to you to be a 49er?

Harbaugh: The opportunity of a lifetime.

Note: After I left his office, Harbaugh came rushing after me. He said he wanted to add to his final answer. ‘It’s also the challenge of a lifetime,’ he said.

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  1. Frank in Minnesota

    Coach Harbaugh seems to answer you very thoughtfully and he even chased after you to complete a thought…very honest of him, and respectful. I hope that this is the coach we will see during the football season. He certianly was not full of himself nor did he begrudged anyone. He seems humble enough to listen and learn, did you come away with that?

    March 18th, 2011 11:01 am

  2. Robert

    Congrats Lowell. Great stuff as always. Can’t wait to see the Sunday column.

    March 18th, 2011 11:22 am

  3. gary

    Nice read.
    However, I would have preferred more questions on his evaluation
    on alex Smith. At best, he was mediocre for the 49ers.
    What could he actually change that would allow Smith to
    now become, at least, a qualtiy starter?
    I do not care if he is a nice guy, I care that he can not
    succesd as a quarterback in the NFL, and nothing I have read
    from Harbaugh indicates, that proformcance would change in the

    March 18th, 2011 12:04 pm

  4. Stan

    How Lowell,did you muster the incredible willpower not to remind Harbaugh,Alex Smith has killed TWO coaches careers?
    I don’t think I could have let that go by.

    March 18th, 2011 12:15 pm

  5. servegmo

    loved it! so pump to have Jim as our coach!!!

    March 18th, 2011 12:36 pm

  6. CohnZohn

    gary, good questions. here’s the deal. harbaugh is not allowed to talk much about smith because smith is a free agent. the team is worried about the appearance of tampering. plus harbaugh clearly only will say good things about smith and he does not like to talk much about players to begin with.

    March 18th, 2011 2:34 pm

  7. Mark M

    Outstanding interview. Insightful into the detail of his thought. Kudos.

    It stands in stark contrast to the previous regime, his disdain for media, foolish emotional answers or just saying nothing at all.

    I look forward to Sunday

    March 18th, 2011 2:51 pm

  8. Johnc

    Ha, ha. Harbaugh seemed a little wary of you Lowell but he answered honestly. He is disciplined and hard working for sure. I have always thought that he could make Smith better. A better designed offensive scheme would do that automatically. Last year was two rushes and a short pass. 3 and out. Things will change. He has to work with what he has and I think he will instill more confidence into Smith.
    I look forward to your Sunday column.
    Montana was the best I have ever seen going to his second, third or fourth receivers. Brady is good at that but he gets more time in the pocket than Montana did. Montana could scramble when he had to.

    March 18th, 2011 2:52 pm

  9. KauaiRobert

    I think that the biggest mistake fans can make is to expect any miricles this season.
    It would’ve been tough enough to turn things around without the lockout.
    In my opinion, no team will suffer more from all this than the Niners.
    New coaching staff, new system (again), no…errr…NEW QB, and to top it all off, a shortened off-season…IF there even is an off-season.
    Harbaugh knows all of this and is behaving just as he should.
    He’s hoping for the best…but planning for the worst.
    And that’s the best he can do right now.
    One thing I think we can count on though, is that he’s not going anywhere for a while and there’s no substitute for stability.
    I’m sure Alex would agree with that assessment.
    The current situation aside, this is the most optomistic I’ve been in several years.
    With every new HC, you always hear the same thing…it’s the beginning of the Dennis Erickson ERA…or the Mike Nolan ERA.
    I always thought it was dumb to use that phrase at the beginning of someone’s tenure because two or three years is far from what I’d consider an era.
    But I have to admit that I’m buying into it with this guy.
    He’s cerebral like Seifert yet fiery like Mooch which is a cool combination if you ask me.
    And he spends his free time watching Walsh tapes!!!

    March 18th, 2011 3:39 pm

  10. Neal

    At least we didn’t hear Harbaugh say the word ” FILM” he is a breath of fresh air compared to the incompetence of REV DING A LING. It’s great we have a offensive mind that believes in Bill Walsh scheme, compared to what we had, and Holly Roller believed that a QB was just another player. Oh wait he finally said a QB is the most important player after he got his ass fired.

    March 18th, 2011 4:11 pm

  11. BRAY

    Stan- Don’t you mean that “2 coaches killed Alex Smith’s career? ”

    That would be MUCH closer to the truth.

    March 19th, 2011 7:22 am

  12. Jerry

    Hey Stan — you say that Alex Smith killed the careers of 2 coaches. It would probably be more accurate to say that those 2 coaches (Nolan and Singletary) damn near killed the career of Smith.

    March 19th, 2011 8:21 am

  13. Rip

    Jerry, look right above your post. You said the same thing as Bray, but you found a way to use more words. Stan says it was Smith who killed 2 coaches, you two say it was the coaches who killed Smith.. I say it was a combination of the two. They all killed each other. Let’s not sit around and act like Smith isn’t/wasn’t part of the problem.

    March 19th, 2011 11:04 am

  14. Stan

    Funny,but you forget-Shaun Hill WON under Nolan and Singletary. Almost twice as many wins as losses,for the same coaches,OC,O-line,recievers,Stadium,Nacho chips,fog on the pigskin,etc,as Alex Smith.
    I think even if Smith goes to another team and loses..you’s guys will be still finding excuses. You know that’s true..

    March 19th, 2011 11:22 am

  15. Stan

    I STILL say Lowell,you could write a Pulitzer on that era 49er team..trading away a winning QB while haveing more confidence in loser Smith,the comedy to pathos of Singletary,the quotes. I would read that before I read another “What a great coach Wooden,Walsh,Lombardi,etc,”
    I still chuckle at his hiring of hillbilly Jimmy Raye who didnt know Mr.Yahoo or that his brother in law was a linebackers coach-lol. The team president is name JED-classic! You can’t make that stuff up!

    March 19th, 2011 11:44 am

  16. Pierce

    Harbaugh has got some real challenges on his shoulders but I sincerely believe that he is the guy. Nolan and Singletary only hindered the team to say the least but I do believe that Alex Smith can be a franchise quarterback through Harbaugh.

    March 19th, 2011 11:47 am

  17. Ceadderman

    OMG, I can’t believe that I am writing a kudos to Cohn. But I am kudos on a solid piece. Hope to see more.

    Nolan and Sing was Joe Thomas 2.0 and 2.1. Right down to having to get back pieces of our history and without the bonfire at the 50yd marker. I’m a big fan of symmetry but I understand that these things come about in cycles. Hopefully(and most likely) this isn’t a continuation of that.

    After reading the article I come away with the sense that Harbaugh would rather speak of players he has worked with that are on that roster and not players that are not on his roster or are not what he would consider a need for that roster. Am I off base or is it just that simple that he doesn’t like talking about players in general.

    Oh and whatever faults Sing had, he DID get through to Vernon Davis. So he served a purpose no matter how small it will be considered.

    March 19th, 2011 2:33 pm

  18. Papa Stan

    I’m not the above Stan, thank God, I’m a 49er Faithful and season ticket holder since 1971. I have faith in JH and he has faith in AS and he’s the coach we ALL wanted but some Unfaithfuls just don’t get it and never will.

    March 19th, 2011 2:40 pm

  19. Stan

    No pops,I don’t get sheep as fans. I never will. A.S. has been around six years and what’s his rating? 29th out of 32 starting QBs?. And THAT’s as good as he gets!

    March 19th, 2011 5:07 pm

  20. 4th and 1

    I have my doubts about Jim Harbaugh. He’s probably the best we could get for now but I doubt he has anywhere intellect or calculated coolness of Bill Walsh (but then again, who does?).

    March 19th, 2011 6:43 pm

  21. Ceadderman

    You think if he had some solid Receivers to throw to last season he could post a 124 QB rating with them the way he did with Vernon Davis?

    Or that if Raye got the play in before he helmet speaker clicked off(I think it’s 12.5 seconds of the 25 second clock) or had some imagination with the Playbook(think we ran a whopping total of 6 basic plays in the first 3 games) or if Sing let them play the way he did the season before when your “Winning QB” was sucking exhaust fumes at 32nd in the field, might we have stood a chance?

    I won’t kill the Line so much for last season cause they did have their moments with a 1st year Center and Rookie Guard and Tackle in the unit, but Take away all the gaffs that Tree had Alex doesn’t throw 5 picks. If you want I’ll go over those PAINFULLY SLOW for you.

    You don’t know what you’re talking about. Namely Smith only Started 3 out of 6 seasons. His Rookie season he was NOT the Starting QB. Had some starts but his Starts were mostly due to injury and Record. His second year he set a record as being the ONLY player to take every snap Under Center. Not even Joe or Steve did that. That doesn’t make him better but it’s a good thing not bad. 3rd year he got injured because Heitmann called the wrong protection and left Heitmann on an Island with a Linebacker instead of having him cover lardbutt Rocky Bernard, who IMHO intentionally put all his weight into the unprotected QB. Smith came back DESPITE the shoulder injury that should have had him on the IR list and gave it everything despite the boo birds who would’ve been carted out of the Seattle game in a hearse. All cause NoWin got into guys like Jonas Jennings for letting the little injuries have them sit on the sidelines. People said Smith has no leadership? WTHeck are you people wanting? The guy put his career on the line for the team. Maybe THAT’S WHY players STILL support the guy.

    He NEVER strapped on the Pads under Martz.

    He didn’t start his 5th year cause your “Winning QB” was named the Starter after a two week competition nevermind that Smith looked more polished and gave the team a better chance of winning.

    And his 6th season was submarined by every bushleague gaff the talking heads in charge could make. If our team could make adjustments DURING the game instead of only at Halftime or after the Press conferences we COULD have had the West. 7-9 took the Division for cryin out loud. And yet you blame Smith?

    If there are any sheep in this forum it’s you. Baaaaaaaaaaaaa!

    I preach accountability. It’s what my Gramps preached it’s what his Pop preached and it what every one of my Coaches when I played preached. If you aren’t part of the solution then you’re part of the problem. Alex had a number(>5) games where we should have won or at least tied and gone into OT. I’m no math scholar but I think if we’d have won FOUR of those games instead of the Defense collapsing because of our bend but don’t break Zone D had the Corners lining up 10 yards off the Line of Scrimmage we’re in the Playoffs and not the Seaturkies. The thing that ticks me off the most last season are the fools in the Stick booing our guys and giving the enemy reason to stay on us. That garbage was unreal.

    March 19th, 2011 8:08 pm

  22. Dennis

    It would have been interesting to see what ALex Smith’s stats and career looked like if Norv Turner stuck around. If he stays and bombs I will throw in the towel. But I am not convinced he is as bad as he is given credit for.

    March 20th, 2011 8:27 am

  23. Stan

    Ceaderman -like the others- wont bring up Shaun Hill’s success. THAT’s what the die hard Alex lovers do. I put it in black and white,no way aroud it of Hill’s record…so they ignore it.
    And Smith put his career on the line? Give me a break,with his huge contract and the fact he was being benched EVERY pre-season for poor play,and seeing other QB’s named the season starters..uh,another fact the Alex lovers ignore-He wasnt exactly being brave.
    The 49ers have had/have talent-lot’s of it. Singletary still was what? 17-19 in two years even though it felt like 0-36. A real top tier -or close- QB and And a competant coach,and the 49ers are division winners 2-3 years in a row,right now. My crystal ball into what should have been, is never wrong…

    March 20th, 2011 9:54 am

  24. cbj

    One self annointed expert tells us that:
    “Alex Smith has killed TWO coaches careers?”
    What absolute nonsense. Those coaches killed their own careers with their terrrible coaching, terrible deciison making, terrible play calling, etc. QBs do not kill coaches, but coaches most certainly can kill a (any position) player’s career.

    March 20th, 2011 6:57 pm

  25. Stan

    cbj-Lowell agree’s Alex Smith is a coach killer..every local writer I have read says the same thing on top of Alex Smiths loser ways.So,that leaves you Alex lovers as true judges of talent?
    Do you guys meet in secret at library’s and share Alex Smtih photo’s?..like a cult?

    March 21st, 2011 6:13 am

  26. BRAY

    Stab- Each post you flutter farther into your own vaccuum of delerium. Your posts almost never make any sense, they are very difficult to read, you speak in broken sentences and stray off your topic all the time. I have to read a 6 word sentence 3 times to tell what you’re talking about.

    “A real top tier -or close- QB and And a competant coach,and the 49ers are division winners 2-3 years in a row,right now”
    Boy you really went out on a limb on that one!

    I’m not an Alex lover, never have been, I’m just realistic and don’t base my opinions on emotion. Just like the other people on this blog who know the difference from a QB who has no chance to succeed and a QB who has HAD no chance to succeed.

    March 21st, 2011 9:00 am

  27. BRAY

    Nice post Ceddarman! I agree fully about the fools booing AS last year, I stood up during the boos at the NO game and screamed “GET A CLUE ALL OF YOU HATERS”. I hate when people claim they know the problem when in fact they have no idea. The defense and the terrible decision by Phillip Adams to try to catch a punt on the sideline cost us the NO game last year. But the haters came out in force claiming it was ALL AS who cost us the game, he made 3-4 GREAT throws in the 4th quarter and all the “haters” remember is the couple of floaters he threw because Crabtree wasn’t looking when he was supposed to.

    March 21st, 2011 9:10 am

  28. Stan

    You know,I’m not an especially angry, cynical,realist person,But-lol- I’m doing my best with 49er people who arent young teens and should know better.
    I’ve seen every 49er QB since the 70′s..and how can you defend Smith when you’ve seen ,Brody, Plunkett,Montana,Young,Garcia,?..heck,I think Steve Spurrier was even better than Smith. Smith is just a product of a desperate teams need. End of story.

    March 21st, 2011 9:55 am

  29. Dennis

    I go back to Y. A. Tittle. I just don’t think Smith is as bad as you think he is. I think the coaching has been absolutely the worst you could imagine over that same stretch of qb’s you mentioned. Smith’s problem, in my estimation, is one of confidence. Walsh would have made him the second coming of Joe or Steve.

    March 21st, 2011 6:57 pm

  30. BRAY

    Stan- You just explained your problem. “I’m not an especially angry, cynical,realist person”. Most of your posts supports your claim to not being a realist.

    You expect AS to play like Montana or Young, even Garcia? He has played better than Plunkett when he was here, check it out. How many QB’s in the history of the NFL measure up to Montana and Young? You can probably count them on one hand. I have never defended AS, I defend common sense.

    March 22nd, 2011 9:03 am

  31. Stan

    I’m the most real person here.But I can go with fantasy for a good monster movie.
    But to say like Dennis,Walsh could make Alex Smith the second coming of Joe Montana? I’m too kind to follow that with a one liner..this time-lol.Out of respect for Walsh..
    Common sense says Bray? Smith doesnt even have the winning percentage of Shaun Hill,who you once again pretend never did his accomplishments with the same whole enchilada of coachs and players and schemes.
    And Jim more than proved himself after he left the 49ers…just as proved himself BEFORE he got to the 49ers. You might have read that Alex Smiths own college coach Urban Meyer,even admits Smith only did well for him when the team was good enough to make up for his robotic quarterbacking-any change and Smith was like a fish out of water.
    But,I’m sure you all will say Urban Meyer and me are wrong.

    March 22nd, 2011 3:57 pm

  32. Stan

    Bray,you can’t spell Stan right,and you dismiss what I wrote over spelling?. Amazing how lesser minds do that to my posts. Like,it’s the last resort of the out debated by logic and evidence. You might as well say i’m wrong by how I part my hair….lol..

    March 22nd, 2011 7:29 pm

  33. john

    the day coach H was introduced on espn, they were showing clips of alex (and troy) throwing while jim was talking. these were all their bad throws to nobody, overthrows, picks, fumbles, and all the incompletions. alex had alot of em. yes some of that is coaching but some of that is alex and he’s getting worse instead of better.

    April 3rd, 2011 11:05 am

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