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?”
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?”
“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?”
“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 firstname.lastname@example.org.