This article appears in ESPN The Magazine's Dec. 12, 2011 "Interview Issue."
IT'S NOT SO MUCH that Jim Harbaugh says goofy stuff, though that's definitely part of why his team hangs on his every word. It's far more important, particularly to his players, that he believes every single word he says.
The key to understanding Harbaugh is to see the world through the eyes of a 49er, preferably one who's endured the lean years that preceded the rookie coach. Once you manage that, you can grasp how Harbaugh has taken a roster with 13 former first-rounders but no discernible history of success and led it to a 9-1 start, the 49ers' best pre-Thanksgiving stretch since 1997. "In the past, we'd look around and know we had great players," says sixth-year tight end Delanie Walker. "We just needed the right formula. Harbaugh has the right formula."
Fresh off an equally stunning turnaround at Stanford, from 1-11 in 2006 to 12-1 in 2010, Harbaugh is unlike either of his predecessors: Mike Nolan, a defensive coordinator masquerading as a head coach, and Mike Singletary, an alleged motivational genius who failed to motivate. Harbaugh has emphasized the running game (an NFC-high 31.5 rushes per game through Week 11) and a blitz-happy defense featuring breakout rookie OLB Aldon Smith. For the most part, though, the schemes and roster haven't changed much.
The big difference is the coach himself.
In training camp, Harbaugh saw a team with playoff talent. To hammer that belief home to the players, he told them about how his exuberant dad, Jack, a longtime college football coach, used to pump up his family by yelling, "Who has it better than us?" The Harbaugh kids would yell, "Nobody!" At practices ever since, the coach barks the question, and players scream back, "Nobody!"
Harbaugh's intensity is cut by his unfiltered silliness. Take this series of quotes, all from the same midweek 10-minute news conference. The coach says his team's success is attributable to the character of the players: "They shower you with virtues: discipline, work ethic, loyalty. They're mighty guys." He calls Patrick Willis a "downhill five-tool linebacker." What's a downhill linebacker? "It's a guy who can hit an offensive lineman thick, even burp a lineman on contact." Asked if he'll hold back in practice leading up to a Thanksgiving game against his brother John in Baltimore, just four days after a home win vs. Arizona, Harbaugh says, "We're not going to save anything for the swim back."
Yes, it's just rhetoric. But if you think it hasn't played a part in the 49ers' epic about-face, you should listen to the room. "We think he's hilarious," Walker says. "But everything he says has meaning." Adds QB Alex Smith, widely written off as a bust before the season: "What I appreciate about him, and it's rare in the NFL, is that he's not so self-aware. He is who he is, and he's not concerned with who's watching him."
Given Harbaugh's acerbic nature and disinterest in football decorum (including, ahem, the postgame coaches' handshake), it's understandable that some fans view him as an overaged punk. But his players say he's transferred his boldness onto them. The 49ers won in Philly in Week 4 after being down 23-3, then rallied in Week 10 to beat the Giants. "Last year, games like that? We lose," Walker says. "Now we know we can win because the coach's confidence has become our confidence. Like he says, 'Give 'em nothing and take all.'"
That slogan figures to become a mantra as the 49ers clinch the NFC West with games to spare. Will Harbaugh take his foot off the pedal to regroup for the playoffs? Not likely. That would mean the unthinkable: saving some for the swim back.