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 . . .
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.