Here is a link to my Tuesday column about Jim Harbaugh as he fades away from the Niners. The full text runs below:
“And that’s the end. He passes away under a cloud, inscrutable at heart.”
— Our final vision of Lord Jim from “Lord Jim” by Joseph Conrad
I don’t know Jim Harbaugh. You don’t, either.
He just held his Monday news conference, the big weekly deal with television cameras capturing his final performance as a 49er. I can’t believe he will conduct a news conference next Monday after the 49ers’ last game. By then, he will be on the way out. I don’t know where.
So much I don’t know about him.
This I know. He came into our lives as 49ers’ coach with a ceremony like a coronation. It took place in a giant ballroom in a downtown San Francisco hotel, and you would have thought the Niners had hired Charlemagne the Great. The York family — the family that no longer likes Hargaugh — feasted off his image and his charisma and his vitality, and built a winner and built a stadium on the fruits of his labor.
Harbaugh had bad manners and was clueless at dealing with the media, maybe even clueless about how to act in a world of adults. He evolved before our eyes. He became whimsical and talkative and even kind. I don’t know how he acts behind closed doors. He may be a jerk.
I’m telling what I know, which isn’t much. He is either too complicated to understand or too simple.
He never took things personally. I could write he screwed something up — I did — and next time he saw me, he’d say hello and ask how I was doing. He made a point of this. It was his way of saying we still could do business together. It was more than that. It was his way of saying he is above media criticism, doesn’t take it to heart. He was giving me the go-ahead to do my job. No hard feelings.
Compare him to Jed York who, just the other day, blocked Mercury News columnist Tim Kawakami on Twitter. Such a loss of pride, allowing a writer to get under his skin publicly. Harbaugh always was above the trivial.
When Harbaugh was nice to me, I never felt he did it in exchange for my being nice to him. He didn’t care. He was nice because, in a way I can’t understand, he kind of likes me. I would not want to work for him, but I liked working with him.
He learned the name of every media member who covers his team regularly.
Bruce Bochy doesn’t even do that. Harbaugh makes a point of using your name.
You can argue with him. You can say he’s all wet — I have — and he gives that square-jawed smile that makes him look like Superman without the blue hair. He may argue back or change the subject but he doesn’t make you feel stupid like I imagine Bill Belichick does, or that you’ve strayed beyond an invisible line and will pay for it down the line.
Still, I hardly know him.
He might greet the media on a Monday. He might be Expansive Jim. He might talk and laugh 25 minutes and tell great stories. But on Wednesday he could be curt and surly and answer in monosyllables. After you asked a question, he’d delay before answering and he’d listen with his mouth open. On Friday, he’d be Expansive Jim again.
He has at least two personalities. Maybe more. I don’t know him well enough for an accurate count.
He has a boy’s smile. I am taken with his smile. At news conferences — it happened Monday — he will answer a question with a particular flourish and then he’ll stare at me and smile like a boy. It’s like he’s saying, “That was pretty good, right?”
He knows the media can’t understand football like him. He’s trying to enter our world and be clever and impress us and get us to like him.
Don’t ask me.
If I bumped into him at a bar, I wouldn’t know what to say. What topic could we share? I like him, anyway.
He was thrilling to cover. He ranks with Don Nelson, Bill Walsh, Frank Robinson and Dusty Baker as the coaches/managers with the most dominant, most fascinating personalities I’ve regularly written about. He is a character from a big novel, a novel with many parts. Dickens would have loved writing about Jim Harbaugh.
Something went wrong this season. I don’t know what. Not really.
Something about management screwing up the whole operation before the season even began. Something about management being fed up with Harbaugh. Maybe management had good reasons. Something about the offense being dead on arrival.
Surely, Harbaugh must take some blame for this season, for the current four-game losing streak, for the bad play of his quarterback, for the oversimple and totally ineffective offensive scheme. Maybe what they say is true — Harbaugh is good for only three or four years.
Until now, he always left a program better than he found it, left the program on the upswing. Think Stanford.
Is he leaving the 49ers on the upswing?
Doesn’t seem so.
You got me.
Fred vonAppen, who used to coach at the Niners and coached several times at Stanford, once told me this. He was coming back to Stanford and needed a house. Jack Harbaugh, Jim’s dad, was leaving the Bay Area. Fred dropped by the Harbaughs to see if he wanted to buy their place. While Fred and Jack talked, Fred noticed a teenager sitting at the dining-room table diligently doing his math homework, intent on his homework. The teenager was Jimmy before he became the famous Jim Harbaugh, the NFL quarterback and the big-time coach.
I sometimes visualize Jim doing his homework like any other high school kid. I wonder about talking to him then. Would he have been friendly, open, likable? Would I recognize grownup Jim in Jimmy?
I have no idea. I see him under a cloud, inscrutable. Always.
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