Jim Harbaugh

Why Harbaugh faced greater NFL challenge with 49ers in 2011

NBC Universal, Inc.

ORLANDO, Fla. — Thirteen years ago, Jim Harbaugh entered the NFL head-coaching ranks at an extreme disadvantage.

This time, Harbaugh is not facing nearly the same challenges as a first-year head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers.

On Monday at the NFL Annual Meeting, Harbaugh repeatedly talked about his anticipation of April 2, when the Chargers are scheduled to open their offseason program.

This is a major difference from what Harbaugh experienced with the 49ers in 2011.

San Francisco was in drastic need of a new vision after coach Mike Singletary was fired with one game remaining in the 2010 regular season.

Harbaugh, coming off a wildly successful stint at Stanford, took over but did not have the benefit of a regular offseason due to the NFL's lockout of its players during a labor dispute.

Essentially, it was up to the players to coach themselves.

“What I remember most is the players,” Harbaugh said when NBC Sports Bay Area asked him Monday about his first season with the 49ers.

“Alex Smith getting all the players together at San Jose State. And Justin Smith and the players really took it upon themselves even though there was a lockout.”

At the NFL Annual Meeting that spring, Harbaugh joined his brother, Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, and then-Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz for a legendary dinner.

During the course of their meal, Schwartz expressed his opinion to Jim Harbaugh that he had very little chance for a successful first season with the 49ers if the lockout lasted into the summer.

The 132-day lockout ended with the agreement of a new collective bargaining agreement in late July. Training camp was the first time Harbaugh had a chance to work with his new players.

There was one day during the NFL Draft in April when the lockout was suspended.

Smith visited the team offices in Santa Clara, met with Harbaugh and collected the playbook and coaching materials. Then, he arranged workouts and teaching sessions for his teammates at San Jose State that became known as “Camp Alex.”

Even though he could have no contact with the players after a federal appeals court allowed the NFL to put the lockout back in place, Harbaugh kept tabs on what was happening during the practices through media reports.

“They were still getting together, working,” Harbaugh said. “That whole Survivor Island theme keeps playing in mind. Finding a way, improvising, adjusting. That’s what I remember about that.”

Schwartz’s pessimistic view of Harbaugh’s challenge was the story behind the story for what happened in Week 6. The 49ers (4-1) visited the undefeated Lions, who opened the 2011 season with five consecutive victories.

The 49ers pulled off the 25-19 victory in a hotly contested game. Harbaugh delivered a hard handshake and an enthusiastic swat to Schwartz back as the coaches met at midfield after the game. Schwartz took exception and went after Harbaugh.

The teams tangled as they entered the tunnel leading to their respective locker rooms.

Harbaugh made his point. He could turn the 49ers into an immediate winner despite all the hurdles of a unique NFL offseason.

"He may be the best team-builder in football right now," John Harbaugh recently said of his brother.

Jim Harbaugh has been a winner everywhere he has coached -- from the University of San Diego to Stanford to the 49ers to Michigan.

And he fondly recalls those days with San Francisco, ticking off many of the names from his first NFL team.

“NaVorro Bowman, so many guys on that team, Vernon (Davis), Delanie (Walker),” Harbaugh said.

Harbaugh hired Bowman, former 49ers center Jonathan Goodwin and former 49ers defensive lineman/fullback Will Tukuafu to his Chargers coaching staff.

Harbaugh said when he reflects on his former 49ers, he thinks about many of them, ‘There’s nobody I love more than him.’

“There’s nobody I love more than Frank Gore," Harbaugh said. "There’s nobody I love more than Patrick Willis. Just on and on. It was a team of guys like that.

“That’s what we had at Michigan.”

Harbaugh jumped to the NFL after leading Michigan to a 15-0 record and a national championship. Last week, he attended Michigan's pro day in Ann Arbor.

“When I walk around that pro day, it’s like, ‘Yeah, no wonder we won the national championship,’” Harbaugh said. “I had coaches and GMs coming up to me after meeting with my guys. Mike Tomlin said, ‘Gold standard human beings, no wonder you won the national championship.’”

Now, Harbaugh will try to replicate his previous successes with the Chargers, a team with star quarterback Justin Herbert and plenty of talent on both sides of the ball.

In his previous NFL head-coaching stint, Harbaugh spent four seasons with the 49ers before there was a “mutual parting." Ownership and management found the relationship with their coach was not worth trying to salvage despite three NFC Championship game appearances and one Super Bowl.

It all began with a surprisingly fast start. And, yes, Harbaugh proved Schwartz wrong.

Without the benefit of an offseason program in his first season, Harbaugh still guided the 49ers to a 13-3 regular-season record. The 49ers ended up losing to eventual Super Bowl-champion New York Giants in overtime of the NFC Championship game.

Download and follow the 49ers Talk Podcast

Contact Us