There was this funny little moment just after San Francisco dismantled Carolina on Sunday in Charlotte. 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh’s postgame press conference was winding down, which meant it was time for someone to ask whatever slightly testy question there was to be asked. A reporter decided to ask about the fake punt.
You might have turned off the TV by then, but on Sunday, with 23 seconds left in the game, San Francisco faced a fourth-and-4 from the Carolina 34. The game was obviously over -- San Francisco led by two touchdowns and more or less every Carolina Panthers fan had vacated the premises -- and the 49ers sent out their punt team. The snap came to punter Andy Lee, who then threw a pass to a wide-open (I mean WIDE-OPEN) Kassim Osgood. If the pass had been even pedestrian, it would have been a touchdown for Osgood. As it was, the pass looked like something a kid in the parking lot might throw, and it bounced about 500 yards in front of Osgood, and the the Panthers got the ball.
But a fake punt? Up two touchdowns? With 23 seconds left?
The reporter framed the question carefully. He wanted to know if the fake punt had been ordered by the players on the field, you know, because they saw something in the Panthers alignment and, dammit, they couldn’t help themselves. Harbaugh grimaced. No. It was called. Of course it was called. And it almost worked. It should have worked.
“Let me tell you,” he said of punter Lee. “He throws them a lot better in practice.”
These men, these football coaches, are some of the most competitive people in America. Most of them will tell you their need to win is more disease than attribute, more affliction than strength. Gunther Cunningham, when he was the head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, used to call Jon Gruden’s office at 3 or 4 in the morning just to see if that guy was working as hard as he was working (he loved it when the phone rang and rang). The stories about Bill Belichick’s competitiveness, even in meaningless exhibitions like the Pro Bowl, are legendary. When J.R. Moehringer did his piece on Pete Carroll, he briefly considered a mini-compettion with Carroll to see who could go the longest without drinking any fluids. Carroll warned him not to make it a competition because he would die of thirst before losing. Moehringer stood down. Carroll didn’t drink for hours anyway.
But somebody in this competition cauldron has to be the craziest, the hungriest, the most adamant about winning every minute of every day -- and that coach just might be Jim Harbaugh.
How many examples do you need? There was, of course, the famous and thoroughly played out “What’s Your Deal” moment from 2009 when Harbaugh was coaching Stanford and Carroll was coaching USC. Harbaugh had his team run up the score (the final was 55-21), a football taunt so blunt that the team tried a 2-point conversion late. “What’s your deal man?” Carroll barked at him after the game.
Then, there was the Jim Schwartz handshake incident when an overexcited Harbaugh -- after an emotional and intense victory -- jumped and ran on the field, slapped down a “we have ourselves a deal” handshake with the downhearted Schwartz followed by a “you’re gonna love this car,” roundhouse back slap. Schwartz was not aware that he had come into some sort of happy partnership, and he chased down Harbaugh and seemed ready to fight and so on. The thing that was so wonderfully Harbaugh about it, though, was the look of utter befuddlement on Harbaugh’s face. He literally seemed to have no idea what this guy was even mad about.
There was the time when President Barack Obama said that if he had a son he would have to think hard about letting him play football. Harbaugh responded: “If President Obama feels that way, then there will be a little less competition for (his then 5-month-old son) Jack Harbaugh when he gets old enough.”
There was the time he decided to bench quarterback Alex Smith -- a former No. 1 overall pick and the guy who had guided the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game the year before -- because he believed that that Colin Kaepernick was more explosive and more aggressive and more his style.
These are just a few of the big things -- “mini controversies,” Harbaugh sometimes calls them. There are the insane superstitions -- the insistence on wearing those old-school pleated khakis (his wife, Sarah, called a radio station this week to distance herself from his fashion tastes), the same whistle and sharpie he wears around his neck. Many psychologists believe superstitions come from our brain’s hunger for success, so we repeat acts that led to success even if on the surface we understand they had nothing to do with success. It’s not entirely clear that Harbaugh has this surface understanding.
There are the sideline antics -- the screaming and spitting and running and gyrating -- that led Mike Holmgren to say, “I think Harbaugh gets away with murder, myself.” Linebacker Patrick Willis’ description of him: “Crazy … but a good crazy.”
He can’t help it. That’s the point. That’s why it works. There’s nothing fake about it, nothing show about it. He really can’t help himself. Win. Always. There is the kid who, when he was playing basketball in the basement, kept detailed statistics. This is the man who took over a 1-11 Stanford team and, four years later, led them to a 12-1 record and an Orange Bowl victory. This is a man who took over a 6-10 49ers team and became the first first coach in NFL history to take that team to three championship games in his first three years.
Competition boils inside him -- not some of the time, not most of the time, but every minute of every day. He really does want to win every single minute. Ask him a question? He wants to win the question. Walk on the field? He wants to win the walk. Shake his hand? He obviously wants to win the handshake. The question of running up the score or not running up the score long after the game is decided does not even seem to compute for him. The score is always 0-0 to Jim Harbaugh.
That intense, unquenchable hunger seems to be Harbaugh’s defining quality as a coach. He’s obviously smart, obviously has a a powerful sense of the game. He has been preparing to coach since he was a kid, since he was a college quarterback for Bo Schembechler, since he was an NFL quarterback for Mike Ditka.
But it is the basics of competition -- “man up,” and “better than yesterday” and “play with a chip on your shoulder” -- that drive Harbaugh and his teams. Other coaches have their thing. Belichick coaches through film study -- he will transform his team into whatever shape or form they need to be to win the game. Carroll believes in positive energy and gaining trust in each other and simply knowing that you are going to win.
Harbaugh, though -- it’s just attack. That’s all. All attack. Attack on offense. Attack on defense. Attack on special teams. Attack in meetings. Attack at lunch. Go forward. Never stop. Never lose a battle. Never give anything. His father, Jack, a longtime coach, would tell JIm to attack every day. He told that to all his children and all his players, but Jim above all took it seriously and quite literally. At one point after beating the Panthers, Harbaugh broke down his philosophy of playoff football.
“It’s like, uh, it’s kind of like playground basketball,” he said. “Winners stay and play. Losers lose and go home. … So that’s what I tell the team. What are you willing to do to stay on the floor?”
The look on Harbaugh’s face told the story: He’s willing to do just about anything.