Prepared for greatness

Jim Harbaugh's coaching style is not unlike that of another 49ers great: Bill Walsh. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Roger Craig has a prediction. The former San Francisco running back is all-in. He is a believer again. The 49ers franchise he helped win three Super Bowls in the 1980s is back. It will become the next dynasty, this decade's version of the New England Patriots.

In Jim Harbaugh, Craig trusts.

"I'm going on the record saying the 49ers win two Super Bowls in the next eight years," Craig said last week. "They'll be the winningest team in the next decade."

Wow. That's confidence.

For the past several weeks, ESPN.com has been unveiling its list of the 20 greatest NFL coaches of all time. No. 2 on that list is the man for whom Craig played most of his career, the incomparable Bill Walsh. Walsh built his own dynasty in San Francisco a lifetime ago. He was an innovator who left a lasting impression on the game. The principles of Walsh's West Coast offense are still used today, and his coaching tree has deep roots and many branches.

Walsh set the standard that Harbaugh must follow, and in two short years, Harbaugh is well on his way. Craig believes there is much more to come.

Craig saw it during the Niners' third preseason game under Harbaugh in 2011. Houston drubbed San Francisco 30-7, and it was the second time in the preseason that Harbaugh's team had failed to score more than seven points. But Craig didn't look at the final outcome. He watched the three series that the Niners' starters played. He was blown away by how hard they played, how organized they were, how sharp they were on both offense and defense.

"I saw that our team dominated the first three series," Craig said. "I saw organization. I saw urgency. I was like, 'Wow.' I made this [Super Bowl] prediction on the same day. I saw those first three series, and that's all I needed to see."

That was two years ago, before the 49-year-old Harbaugh, who played 14 years in the NFL, had coached one regular-season game. Now look: Harbaugh has a 24-7-1 regular-season record, is 3-2 in the postseason and has won two NFC West titles and a conference championship. That he lost to his brother's Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl is simply evidence that John Harbaugh also is a damn good coach.

A decade from now, both brothers will grace the list of the 20 greatest NFL coaches. For each, it is only a matter of time.

To Craig, the evidence of Jim Harbaugh's greatness is in the qualities he shares with Walsh. Walsh treated every one of his players the same, Craig said. It didn't matter if it was Joe Montana or the last man on the roster. In Walsh's mind, they were equals.

And like Walsh, Harbaugh has a wicked sense of humor. Walsh once designed a formation for right guard Guy McIntyre, where McIntyre would be the blocking back for Craig. Because McIntyre was legendary for hanging out with the ladies at a local restaurant named Black Angus, Walsh named the formation, "Angus."

Harbaugh is fiercely intense and isn't particularly forthcoming with the media, either because he doesn't want to be bothered or he simply isn't interested, but he can be very funny in his own quirky way.

He has had a plan since he arrived in San Francisco from Stanford, and unlike other men who have made the jump from college to the pros, because of his background, Harbaugh can't be considered a college guy. He was always pointing his coaching career to getting back into the NFL.

"He's my kind of coach," Craig said. "He makes you accountable. He's very similar to Bill Walsh that way. He makes you accountable for what you do on and off the football field, but the main thing is he's a tough coach and he expects you to be professional.

"He will pat you on the back if he scolds you. He's got your back. That's what players like. He won't leave you hanging. Some coaches will scream and yell and then not tell the player anything. I like what Jim's doing."

Like Walsh, Harbaugh also has tremendous confidence in himself and isn't afraid to make a hard decision midseason (a trait he also shares with his older brother, by the way). While controversial -- given the circumstances under which Alex Smith lost his job -- that Harbaugh switched quarterbacks midway through last season took guts. And Harbaugh was right.

Colin Kaepernick has the ability to read his progressions and find his fourth receiver, and has the added element of speed, which is another reason Craig thinks the Niners are destined for greatness.

But it all starts with the head coach. Harbaugh is the leader, the tone-setter and the franchise-builder.

"If I could play right now, I would play for Jim Harbaugh," Craig said. "That's my guy. I love Jim Harbaugh."

He will love him even more if Harbaugh proves Craig's prediction correct.