Zohn readers, here is the raw dialog of my conversation with Jim Harbaugh about Bill Walsh. I used this material for a column I just sent to the Press Democrat. I am posting this dialog because not all of it got into the column – we are pressed for space these days in the paper newspaper. So I want you to get the full benefit of what we spoke about. There’s something else. The column is different from the dialog – it’s more written. So you can see the choices I made and what I emphasized and what I didn’t use. This will show you how I think (and how a columnist thinks). You may prefer the raw version. I understand that. But I hope you find the comparison interesting. I will post the column when it gets posted on the PD website. Here goes: 

Cohn: When Bill Walsh was a young guy and he took over here . . .

Harbaugh: Aha.

Cohn: . . . one day he was out with his wife, Geri, and he had his arm around Geri’s back and he was doing this (I move my fingers).

Harbaugh: Drawing plays?

Cohn: Yeah. And when he stopped she turned to him and said, ‘Did it work?’

Harbaugh: Laughs loudly.

Cohn: Bill was thinking offensive football all the time. He was obsessed the way an artist is. Are you like that, doing plays all the time in your head?

Harbaugh: Yeah. To me the most critical thing in competing in anything is having the ability to think to win, thinking through how you’re going to win, thinking through how you’re going to gain an advantage. That’s the most critical factor in winning.

Cohn: Does that mean when you leave the office – you’re driving home at night and you’re playing some music – would plays be drifting through your mind?

Harbaugh: Yeah, I’m thinking about something, maybe plays, something within the organization, some kind of detail. I get kind of fixed on it. Don’t play the radio.

Cohn: Do you discuss plays with your wife?

Harbaugh: I don’t discuss a lot of the schematic plays with my wife but, yeah, definitely things as it pertains to the football team with her.

Cohn: How well did you know Bill Walsh?

Harbaugh: I knew him for nine months, his last nine months. Got to know him pretty well. It was more just listening and being around him. I don’t know how well I knew him. I felt I knew him. I felt like I knew who he was.

Cohn: How did your connection with him come about?

Harbaugh: He had first called me. He called me about the Stanford job. Called me and asked if I’d be interested in the head-coaching job at Stanford and then he was very much in the interview process, probably asked 90 percent of the questions at the interview. From there he had an office right in Stanford. Maybe a dozen or 13 times we went to lunch or breakfast or over to the (Peninsula) Creamery which he liked to go to. Or sit in his office and just ask if I could sit there on his couch while he was being interviewed or a former player would come in to talk to him. Just every chance I could get like that just to listen to him talking.

Cohn: What impressed you about the way he carried himself?

Harbaugh: That there was a real humility about him. He would ask even if he was trying to give advice. He would ask what I thought or what somebody else thought first. And then when I asked him what he thought it was spot on but it was in a way that he wanted you to continue to keep thinking about how you wanted it, what you thought. Does that make sense to you?

Cohn: Absolutely. That’s how he was. In terms of offensive football could you characterize his philosophy?

“I definitely want to learn and try to continue grow at the craft and master . . . I want to be a great coach. That is a great coach and I want to learn from him still. His philosophy was first of all a real understanding of every position on the field, how one relates to the other, how a defense plays, what they’re trying to do to an offense, what an offense is trying to do to a defense and create mismatches. Very much a chess player would be how I’d describe the way he thought through things. If you do this you can take advantage of this. This receiver runs this route it attracts this defender which could also shield another defender, stretch out the defense laterally and create a seam vertically.”

As Harbaugh talks about these tactics he moves his hands over his head, each finger a player.

“That kind of thinking there’s a real process to it. He was a tremendous teacher. He was able to convey what he’s thinking in a very methodical way and it was simple to understand for the student. You’re talking about the greatest football mind that the NFL’s ever known. I think he has a deep abiding respect for the game of football. I think he really cared about people. I think he was very secure with himself as a person and what he understood about football. And the evidence of that is he was so willing to share that with other people where it’s not always the case with some people that think knowledge is power and they’re going to keep that to themselves. He was very willing to share that with his assistant coaches his players, people outside of the organization for the betterment of the game. Even after he was coaching how many times did he go work out a potential draft choice, Kerry Collins, Steve Stenstrom. I’ve got the tape. I’m looking at him working those guys out in 1995 before the draft, just wanting to teach, wanting to share what he knew about football when there was really not anything that was going to promote himself. The benefit was going out to other people. That’s greatness. I always get that sense of him that makes himself small and builds everyone else up around him.”

Cohn: Are you trying to be like Bill?

Harbaugh: You can’t be somebody else. You have your own personality. But you want to become a better teacher, more knowledgeable, better able to think your way to victory.

Cohn: What’s on the tapes?

Harbaugh: On the field workout, installation of play diagrams and motivational talks to the team.

Cohn: When you watch these things do you feel like you’re communicating with him or he’s communicating with you? That may sound weird.

Harbaugh: I don’t think that’s weird. I believe that, yeah, it’s a connection to history.

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  1. Stan

    Cerebral is how he was,contemplative,a calm general or head of a monestary,equally a leader.
    That’s why its been sad to read on Cohn Zone posters who defended Singeltary-be like mike-remember him? and the present Alex Smith. Walsh would have traded Alex away long ago,and Smith would have been just another forgotten no.1 pick,not the albatross he is now and has been. Walsh WOULD have gotten this very same 49er team into the playoffs (And I might add a Phil Jackson would do for the present Warriors-greatness is more than picking subs off the bench)
    If you were there for the Walsh era,the bungling of late has been pitiful.

    March 19th, 2011 12:34 pm

  2. Neal

    Nice column Lowell, that was so cool he used his wife back as a football field to draw plays. It just makes me wonder why the Yorks were so incompetent in hiring two losers since Mooch and it took 8 or 9 years to figure that out.

    March 19th, 2011 1:09 pm

  3. glenellen

    Good interview. It looks like you have a good connection with Harbaugh now, that you both liked Walsh so much for many different reasons. He loves hearing your Walsh stories. I believe this connection will do you well in the future. It sounds like people are giving him back the tapes they ripped off.

    March 19th, 2011 2:42 pm

  4. Canadian Niner

    Let’s be honest, we got very very lucky with Bill Walsh becoming our head coach and later GM. I don’t think Eddie ever foresaw the greatness in Bill until years after our dynasty ended. I am just glad we now have a coach that appreciates how great Bill was. I still can’t believe the Stanford team went to his funeral and the Niners did not. That is one thing I will never forgive the Yorks for, but at least the signing of Big Jim lessens the pain.

    March 19th, 2011 3:17 pm

  5. jdb

    Based on the columns and articles written about Walsh over the years, he was an exemplary individual. That the Niners now have a coach that understands and respects Walsh’s concepts gives the franchise some hope for the future. Good interview and good column, Lowell.

    March 19th, 2011 10:43 pm

  6. Mike A DiRubio

    @Canadian Niner-Uh I was at that funeral and the Niners were represented very well! I do not however recall seeing you there!

    March 22nd, 2011 10:25 am

  7. Bolweevil

    Oh Mighty Harbaugh,
    Let ye be judged by your actions and results not by your associations. I miss Bill.

    March 23rd, 2011 9:36 am

  8. Mike

    Thanks for sharing this, Lowell. Very insightful of Harbaugh, “He would ask even if he was trying to give advice.”

    “Absolutely. That’s how he was.” – Lowell Cohn

    Applying this is the real challenge, which is what many will try to do, but will fail to be in what Bill Walsh was because he mastered it, but never believed he made it.

    We can only try to be like him in the things he did well, which is why Jim Harbaugh was smart in saying he can’t be someone else. He can only be himself, which is intelligent.

    I am a guy who just turned forty and still trying to figure it out. Again, thanks for sharing, and I respect you a lot.

    March 23rd, 2011 1:24 pm

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