Here is a link to my Tuesday column about Jim Harbaugh one day after the Niners lost to the Raiders. The full text runs below:
The whole scene was enough to break your heart.
Jim Harbaugh met the media on Monday, the day after the Raiders whipped the 49ers and likely ended their season. The day after the ultimate humiliation.
How would Harbaugh act?
It is important how a coach comports himself after a loss, especially with his tenure so tenuous. In the past, Harbaugh would have acted badly. No coach came to the Niners — or any team in the Bay Area — with more arrogance, with more contempt for custom, protocol and good manners.
Ask former Lions head coach Jim Schwartz about Harbaugh’s respect for the customs of football, about Harbaugh’s respect for a colleague. Ask Pete Carroll about Harbaugh’s tact and good fellowship.
Harbaugh’s behavior was dismal and embarrassing and rude.
He was awful with the media. You may not care, but the media is the conduit between you and the team. When he was rude to reporters, he was spitting in your eye, saying he didn’t care about you. As long as he won, everyone should just shut up and take it.
At news conferences, he would refuse to answer the simplest, most benign questions. He acted like mere reporters had no right to ask him anything. If you asked about a particular play, he would say, “That’s scheme.” Like football plays come straight from the Pentagon. Or he would say, “We’ve already plowed that ground.” He would shut you down, moron.
In response to a question, he once said, “Gobble gobble jive turkey by jive turkey gobblers.”
A man that arrogant fails to understand a fundamental truth about sports. Everyone comes and goes. This is not just one of the fundamental truths. It is the deepest truth of all. And in wise people, it engenders humility and awe.
In my time as a sports writer, I have covered the Bay Area sports life cycles of Bill Walsh, Dusty Baker, Joe Montana, Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott, Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Dennis Eckersley, Eddie DeBartolo, Chris Mullin, Tim Hardaway, Don Nelson, Jon Gruden. I could go on.
Every one of these men had his day. And then he didn’t have his day. Every one learned to be an afterthought. Every one learned that everyone is an afterthought sooner or later. And every one of them learned not to be arrogant. Was forced to be humble. That is the way of the world.
Jim Harbaugh never understood any of that. Jim Harbaugh had to get knocked down to learn. Had to suffer. Jim Harbaugh is learning now.
He came to Monday’s news conference a different man, a man washed clean by failure. It’s another fundamental truth of life that all of us are united in failure of one sort or another. Harbaugh was humble, forthright and sincere on Monday. He made eye contact with every reporter who asked a question. He invited questions. He spoke in a soft, welcoming voice. He took every question seriously. He answered patiently. Gone was the hostility and arrogance.
He never took offense when reporters asked about his future. Has he talked to the University of Michigan about a job? He didn’t answer that. But he declined politely, explained it’s his private business.
And he suffered tough questions graciously. When someone asked if he will bench Colin Kaepernick for Blaine Gabbert, he said, “Colin’s our quarterback.” He said it in an even voice without a hint of confrontation.
The crisis moment had come for him. The moment when a coach sees through to the end and the end is no good. Every coach faces this moment. Every person who’s ever lived faces this moment.
How do you face it? Are you graceful facing the end?
Harbaugh spoke about being a professional, kept saying a professional acts a certain way. It was like we were meeting him for first time. This handsome man in the prime of his life was introducing himself honestly and with humility and dignity. It’s like he was saying, “This is who I am. Please learn about me. Ask me whatever you want. I am willing.”
And he acted like a leader. Calm. Unfazed. Ready for everything. He had learned more from losing than from winning. He was a man you could admire.
His left front tooth was chipped. Worse than that. It was a gaping hole. He looked like a Jack-o’-lantern.
Someone asked how he lost the tooth. He picked up his lip and showed the full horror, said Steelers linebacker Greg Lloyd knocked out the tooth with a helmet-to-helmet hit in 1996. He called Lloyd “Mr. Lloyd.” One professional showing respect for a fellow professional.
He said the cap came off the tooth Saturday night when he ate a steak. He laughed about it. In the past, he hated talking about personal things. Copped the arrogant attitude. I once asked about his twisted left pinkie — he hurt it playing ball. He reacted so tensely you might have thought I asked about sex.
But there he was toothless. And grinning. He was hiding nothing. He said without saying, “This is me. I have flaws like everyone. I am falling apart a little. Things are falling apart. I am vulnerable like you. Look at me. Just look at me.”
All this was so late coming and just so heartbreaking.
He kept talking about doing his job when everything is going to hell. Especially when everything is going to hell.
“You signed up to be a professional, whether it’s a coach or player, and you take great pride in being an NFL professional football player,” he said in his soft slow voice. “You put your car into the space and the day is about giving every ounce of energy you have. And you want to emulate that yourself because you have pride for how you go about your job and your professionalism.”
When someone asked if reports of dysfunction in the 49ers’ locker room come from people in the front office, Harbaugh said, “I don’t know that.”
When someone asked if he is satisfied with the professional behavior throughout the organization, referring to the leaks about him and the degrading tweet from Jed York putting down Harbaugh and the team, Harbaugh said, “We’re a team.”
“We’re a team.”
He never said he is satisfied with the behavior of management. He had no obligation to cover for the people involved. But he put down no one. He took the high road. He showed Jed how to act.
In his darkest hour, Jim Harbaugh was a man.
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@press democrat.com.