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Here is a link to my Thursday column about Jim Harbaugh. The full column appears below:

SANTA CLARA — This is what Jim Harbaugh said the day after his team beat the Packers in Green Bay. Read his words. Think about them:

“People may disagree, but personally, what that meant for the players I was happy and ecstatic for them because I haven’t found anything that makes you feel more like a man than to go, not only beat your opponent, but you’re beating their crowd, and then the elements in a playoff game. And both teams have to beat the elements. But, in a playoff game, to beat the elements, to beat the opposing team, to beat the opposing crowd, just nothing quite makes you feel like a man like that that I’ve found.”

I’m giving you a pop quiz. I’m asking, as an old English teacher, what’s the theme of Harbaugh’s words. I think I know.

He’s talking manhood. Twice he uses the word “man.” Beating the Packers in their place with their fans in that cold was a demonstration of the 49ers’ manhood, a demonstration to the world of their character. For Harbaugh, winning is about being a man.

I compare him to Bill Walsh, the greatest 49ers’ coach. Harbaugh merits the comparison. Someday, he could be the greatest 49ers coach.

Walsh rarely spoke about manhood, although he was proud of being a boxer at San Jose State, knew boxing, argued with me Joe Louis would have defeated Muhammad Ali (I disagreed), told me he once punched out a younger guy at Lake Tahoe after the younger guy pushed his truck behind Walsh’s car and forced Walsh off the slick, snow-covered road. Walsh returned to the house covered in blood and his wife, Geri, asked, “What happened to you?”

A man.

Walsh was a cerebral coach. Harbaugh is an emotional coach who preaches manhood. His team, especially his defense, is tough as they come.

On Wednesday, I had this dialog with Harbaugh who has opened up his personality this season, who enjoys the give-and-take of talking, who goes places inside himself we have not seen before. As we spoke, I thought about Walsh. Think about both of them as you read what follows. I speak first in our dialog:

“Preparing for a big game like this and playing in it, is it fun for you?”

“Yes.”

“What’s the nature of the fun?”

“You can’t have any more fun. This is as much fun as you can possibly have, playing in the playoffs.”

“When you say ‘as much fun as you can possibly have,’ do you mean in football or even in life?”

Pause.

“It’s as much fun as you can possibly have in football and as much fun as you can have in life. Yeah.”

“Do you ever experience a moment of self-doubt as you go into a game like this?”

“I’d call it more worry. Better to worry about things before something happens rather than wait until actually you’re in the moment and something happens. I find that to be a better way to prepare.”

“By worry you mean that you’ve covered all your bases, that you’ve anticipated whatever a person could.”

“I think it starts with what’s the worst possible thing that could happen. When going into a situation, ‘What’s the worst possible thing that could happen? Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen.’ And then, ticks down a subset of questions that are in the hundreds and thousands.”

To summarize: For Harbaugh playing the Panthers next Sunday, do or die, is fun. It’s so much more than fun, the word “fun” being puny in this context. It is the essence of being alive for a man like Harbaugh who feels the “life force” to the max through competition with a worthy foe. It is why he breathes air.

Walsh did not feel that way.

Walsh loved competition. Of course, he did. But he was different from Harbaugh, more complicated. After a big win like the Packers win, Walsh might have gone into a depression on Monday.

Often, he felt no joy from wins. He felt dread from losses and he felt a “death in life” after a win as he gazed toward the next immense challenge. And his hands shook.

This was Walsh on a Monday. The next few days, he would wonder if he still had it as a coach. He would tell himself he no longer had it. He would ask friends if he still had it. He sometimes asked me if he still had it.

This was no fun for Walsh. But Walsh was not looking for fun. He probably was bipolar — sorry, Bill. Before he went to Stanford and to the 49ers, he expected a coronation as head coach of the Bengals. But Bengals owner Paul Brown passed over Walsh. Walsh was crushed and left Cincinnati. He never got over his bitterness. He believed Brown was jealous of his genius, that Brown was spiteful, didn’t want Walsh to show him up.

All of that is possible. There was something else. Brown was scared stiff to entrust his team to Walsh, a man with extreme highs and lows. Or maybe just a man with extreme lows. Brown was wrong about Walsh’s effectiveness. We know that now. He was not wrong about Walsh’s temperament.

By midweek, Walsh would begin to come around. “I can do this. I really can.”

And he would come around.

God, would he come around. He needed the self-doubt and the self-loathing to be his best. It was so painful to witness this never-ending process. He needed to overcome himself before he overcame Joe Gibbs or Mike Ditka or Tom Landry.

I don’t believe Harbaugh needs to overcome himself. Harbaugh is right there, exactly where he needs to be.

He is confident. He worries about details but he doesn’t worry about his emotions or his competence or his place in the world. He feels the joy of competition. Too often, Walsh felt the terror.

Who is more effective?

Well, Walsh won three Super Bowls and changed the National Football League. Harbaugh is not at his level. But Harbaugh has time. Lots of time.

And he has the better temperament when it comes to self-preservation, when it comes to fighting off burnout. You don’t picture Harbaugh motionless in a dark room, holding a glass of chardonnay, the pale liquid gone warm. You don’t picture Harbaugh staring out the window, wondering who he is, wondering if he’s worthy, anguishing over the meaning of life.

There is no Hamlet in Harbaugh.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.

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Comments

33 Comments

  1. sf9erfan

    Lowell,
    Thanks for the insight on Walsh. I really enjoyed this article.
    -9erfan

    January 8th, 2014 11:32 pm

  2. mbabco

    Lowell, if Jim Harbaugh WAS a character in Shakespeare, who WOULD he be?

    January 9th, 2014 2:22 am

  3. Neal

    Classic Vintage signature column,thanks for letting us know about Walsh. Lowell one of your best.

    January 9th, 2014 6:28 am

  4. Streetglide

    King Richard…

    January 9th, 2014 6:52 am

  5. Rob

    I was in awe of Bill Walsh. I still am. It was because he was such a complex and cerebral character that I followed his every word and action through your writings and those of Glenn Dickey, Ira Miller, and others in the green. Your column this morning reminds me why I miss him so much. He made football, and yes life, interesting for us.

    January 9th, 2014 7:44 am

  6. MidWestDynasty

    What a great and interesting insight on one of the greatest minds that the NFL had. Thanks for sharing this Lowell.

    January 9th, 2014 9:22 am

  7. Streetglide

    Funny, but the Eagles look a little bit like the Walsh teams. They are playing a cerebral what-the-hell was that type of game. Philly could have a great team in the not too distant future…

    January 9th, 2014 9:31 am

  8. Mark M

    No one delivers Niner insight like this. A tip of the cap sir.

    However, I always balk at comparing these two. It’s unfair to both. Harbaugh will never live up to that legacy. I think he’ll be gone once this window of opportunity closes with this core set of players. I can’t see Harbaugh sticking out a rebuild process.

    But personalityWISE(sorry), a fascinating portrait of each.

    January 9th, 2014 9:45 am

  9. Stan

    That’s adrenaline type feelings. I never feel as focused,sharp,or determined as when I feel a real life threatening situation to myself. Its like everything I ever learned is on the line. Even my reactions and coordination know that I have to get it right.Yep,I know the feeling.

    Its why Harbaugh’s team pull it out in the end,and Dennis the Menace is the rookie military officer who panics in the end game..
    A bit of mixed metaphors..but legal.

    January 9th, 2014 10:04 am

  10. Tom T Thompson III Phd

    Two things: I think Eddie D had a lot to do with Walsh’s inability to experience joy. He might have been a great owner in terms of spending whatever it took and then some, but the pressure he put on Walsh eventually became unbearable.

    Also: while Walsh may have technically ‘only’ won three Super Bowls, it was his team that won in 89/90. With all due respect to George Seifert, a monkey could have won the Super Bowl with that team, one of the greatest ever assembled.

    January 9th, 2014 10:24 am

  11. CohnZohn

    Tom T, You don’t give Seifert enough credit.

    January 9th, 2014 10:35 am

  12. Steve the cat rescuer

    As I was reading your column I began wondering about the distinctions between Seifert and Walsh. Then Tom T broached the subject. I liked Seifert a lot, thought he was a brilliant coach and leader of men, despite the debacle in Carolina. Any chance you can give us some insight into him in a future column?

    January 9th, 2014 11:22 am

  13. rairmac

    Lowell, while it seems (yes, intended) you prefer the curve, it’s always appreciated when you bring the fastball. This was one of your best….

    January 9th, 2014 12:38 pm

  14. Jimmy

    Was Walsh the same way, football was the only thing that satisfied and made him feel like a man? Seems like a shallow thing to say by Harbaugh.

    January 9th, 2014 12:42 pm

  15. Brady

    That “sit in the corner staring at the wall with lukewarm chardonnay wondering about life” sensation is the one I get when I read a column by you about JH, Kap, and how offensive they are to the media.

    That “this is as fun as life gets” sensation is the one I get when I read a column by you like this one.

    January 9th, 2014 1:04 pm

  16. Tkh

    Great article….very well done….from this outside observer i think Walsh approach the game as a contest of strategy..to take the pieces and game plan a victory…so he was more concerned with his own abilities…Harbaugh seems to approach the game as a contest of will..to impose his will through physical force. So he is less with his own abilities and more concerned with his own motivation…and each team takes on their respective coach’s personality…

    January 9th, 2014 1:25 pm

  17. Marco

    Thanks for the insight, Lowell. Great article.

    I’m a big Bill Walsh fan. Met him once and he couldn’t have been more of a gentlemen. Seemed like a very down to earth and thoughtful individual.

    January 9th, 2014 2:30 pm

  18. Jonathan Larsen

    Question: What is your source for the statement, “Brown was scared stiff to entrust his team to Walsh, a man with extreme highs and lows.” Not doubting this statement, but it is not supported in the article.

    January 9th, 2014 2:50 pm

  19. CohnZohn

    Jonathan, I know what I know. Won’t reveal the source.

    January 9th, 2014 3:00 pm

  20. Neal

    Lowell,

    Do you give Barry Switzer credit for his Super Bowl win, it was really Jimmy Johnson team.

    January 9th, 2014 3:05 pm

  21. CohnZohn

    Neal, The guy who won the game won the game.

    January 9th, 2014 3:07 pm

  22. Neal

    Yes True Lowell in the record books, but the guy before, did all of the work. Switzer just showed up. Also Bill Walsh regrets not coaching for one more year. Is that true?

    January 9th, 2014 3:46 pm

  23. Neal

    Do you think Walsh was really bi-polar, or was he very insecure? I know your not Dr. Phil but Walsh reminds me of entertainers, they all have fragile ego’s and lack confidence, although they are very bright and talented.

    January 9th, 2014 3:50 pm

  24. Dennis

    I like(d) both coaches. The real difference is that Walsh could have excelled in whatever path he took, including the corporate world. Harbaugh is doing what he should be doing and this is about as good as it is going to get for him. You really can’t compare the two.

    January 9th, 2014 4:19 pm

  25. CohnZohn

    Neal, Yes he did have regrets. I give George Seifert credit for that Super Bowl. George coached the team.

    January 9th, 2014 4:45 pm

  26. CohnZohn

    Neal, those definitions are out of my league. He may have been bipolar, certainly was insecure.

    January 9th, 2014 4:45 pm

  27. CohnZohn

    Dennis, How do you know Walsh would have excelled in the corporate world?

    January 9th, 2014 4:46 pm

  28. Stan

    Heeeeeeeyyyy,I heard Harbaugh ask if Lowell thought if its Ok to root for two teams? Something about that wrassler guy.

    Pretty soon Jim’s gonna ask Lowell..”What does Stan think?”…

    January 9th, 2014 7:15 pm

  29. CohnZohn

    Stan, Does Jim know you as well as he knows me?

    January 9th, 2014 7:54 pm

  30. Stan

    If he reads your blog…he knows ..something. lol.

    January 10th, 2014 9:48 am

  31. Tom T Thompson III PhD

    I love George Seifert, but in 89 he benefited from the Alvin Dark effect, inheriting one of the greatest teams ever at its absolute peak. Nothing to be ashamed of. Besides, he proved himself later on.

    January 10th, 2014 11:44 am

  32. Johnc

    So Harbaugh is driven by the adrenalin rush of
    war and Walsh by the fear of failure.

    January 11th, 2014 7:11 pm

  33. Tom Fresso

    Great article. Walsh, Seifert and Harbaugh all great coaches.

    January 24th, 2014 8:38 am

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