SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- There's a story San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh told his team not too long ago, one that has quickly turned into an inspirational message for a squad that has surprised everybody with its 7-1 start. It's about Harbaugh's childhood as the youngest son of former longtime college coach Jack Harbaugh, back when his family never complained about constant moving or tiny, cramped homes. Jack actually would get so energized while driving his kids around that he'd shout, "Who has it better than us?" Every time, Jim would scream with his older brother John and younger sister Julie, "Nobody!"
When Harbaugh told this story, he didn't rely on predictable histrionics or dramatic embellishments. He delivered the tale the same way he usually speaks, with a clear, measured tone designed to drive home the larger point. If the 49ers wanted to look at their circumstances heading into this season -- the most notable being a mere six weeks to get acclimated to their first-year coach after the NFL lockout -- they could find ample reason to wilt. If they wanted to do what Harbaugh did back in the day, which was focus intensely on the positives, they might just create magic.
It's a message that has so resonated with the 49ers that they chant "Nobody!" every time Harbaugh yells, "Who has it better than us?" after practices and games.
"We ran with it," 49ers inside linebacker Patrick Willis said. "The whole point is that no matter what people say on the outside, we have enough for what we need. I don't know if he meant for that to become a motivational story but that's exactly what it is now."
After Sunday's 19-11 win over the Washington Redskins, the 49ers remain one of the league's hottest stories because Harbaugh -- who declined to comment for this story -- has been pushing the right buttons since Day 1. His team has ripped off six straight wins. They have yet to lose on the road and have comeback victories at Detroit and Philadelphia. The 49ers also have been so good that they could conceivably win the weak NFC West before the Christmas shopping season hits full swing.
The most amazing thing about this run is that nobody saw it coming. One agent familiar with people who know Harbaugh said, "Everybody I talked to thought he was going to bomb with the 49ers." Another NFC assistant coach said, "I don't know how they're doing it because they have 9-7 talent." Still, despite all the former college coaches who have recently failed in the NFL, Harbaugh -- who left Stanford to accept a five-year, $25 million contract with the 49ers -- has brought energy and focus to a team that hasn't enjoyed a winning season since 2002.
That was apparent when the 49ers returned from their bye week. Instead of trudging back to business -- as had been the case in years past -- they couldn't wait to return to work for a coach who makes the game fun.
"You can see that he's passionate, and guys respond to that," 49ers wide receiver Braylon Edwards said. "When you're genuine, it's easy for guys to buy into your message. They've had good players here for a while. Now you're seeing good players becoming great."
Added Willis: "He's a players' coach. Normally, you'll see guys wanting to get up and leave the cafeteria when the coach comes in. But he comes in and talks to everybody. He'll sit down with the starters. He'll sit down with the guys on the practice squad. I saw him once walk up to a table where all the seats were taken and he just found a way to squeeze right into space between a couple guys. And nobody left."
A true competitor
There really is no artifice to these 49ers. After spending 15 years as an NFL quarterback, it seemed logical for Harbaugh, 47, to do what most former signal-callers do with power -- turn their offenses into high-flying, pass-happy machines. Instead, he has a team that ranks 30th in the league in passing (173.5 yards a game) while relying heavily on the run (the 49ers rank sixth in the league with 137.6 yards per game). On defense, San Francisco leads the NFL in both scoring and run defense.
The people who know Harbaugh best say there is no mystery to that approach. He has always prided himself on his toughness. This is the same guy who, as the starting quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, once injured his right hand while punching former Buffalo Bills quarterback and NBC broadcaster Jim Kelly before a 1997 game against San Diego. The minute Harbaugh heard that Kelly had called him "a baby" on the air, Harbaugh found the man and confronted him.
That's the way Harbaugh has been since childhood. His brother John, now the Baltimore Ravens' head coach, once told Sports Illustrated that, "Jim is the greatest pure competitor, by far, that I ever met in my life. At everything." Jack Harbaugh added that Jim was just as focused. "He wanted to play at Michigan, have a 15-year career in the NFL and then coach," Jack said. "He had that road map at an early age."
Still, there were plenty of ups and downs. When Harbaugh was a senior at Michigan in 1986, he upset Wolverines assistant coach Jerry Hanlon by ripping into a receiver in practice. Harbaugh was miffed that the teammate stopped running after a pass that was 10 yards overthrown. Hanlon responded with a stern lecture on diplomacy.
"He wound up not talking to me for nearly the entire season," Hanlon said. "But he came to me at the end of the year and said he finally understood what I was saying. Jim had to understand that not everybody was going to compete the way he did."
Harbaugh was just as strong-willed with the Chicago Bears, the team that made him the 26th overall pick in the 1987 NFL draft. Though teammates appreciated his spirit -- "You didn't have to get him up to play football," said former Bears guard Tom Thayer -- his most infamous moment came during a 1992 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. In that game, Harbaugh ignored the direct orders of then-Bears coach Mike Ditka and called an audible in the boisterous Metrodome. That decision led to an interception return for a touchdown, a Minnesota comeback and a heated shouting match between Harbaugh and Ditka. "I'm not going to put 47 players' futures in the hands of one player who thinks he knows more than I do," Ditka said after the game.
Leading by example
Harbaugh's career reached its apex in 1995, when he earned NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors while leading the Colts to the AFC Championship Game. But as his playing days wound down, he started looking for ways to start coaching. After retiring in 2002, that search eventually led him to Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis in 2002. When they met, the owner pulled no punches.
Davis told Harbaugh that countless ex-players had approached him about coaching jobs in the past and they all claimed to love the game until they actually realized the hours involved. So Davis made Harbaugh two promises: He would be tested as a low-level offensive assistant, and he'd see how much he wanted to coach. Harbaugh spent the next two years working long hours in a basement office and doing menial tasks, such as assembling special scouting reports for Davis.
The upside was that he gained enough experience to attract a head coaching offer from the University of San Diego, a Division I-AA program looking for more success.
Said Jack Harbaugh: "Jim went back to Al a couple years later and said he had a good shot at getting the head coaching job at San Diego. Al said, 'USD? Jim, why would you want to go there?' Jim said he'd read Al's bio and remembered that Al had taken a college job early in his career. That's when Al said, 'Yeah, Jim. That was U-S-C!' "
Harbaugh was so committed to winning at USD that 49ers quarterbacks coach and good friend Geep Chryst said, "They had to calm him down at times. He was running the program like it was Michigan."
Former USD All-American quarterback and current Tampa Bay Buccaneers backup Josh Johnson concurred: "We had a lot of guys quitting because they didn't want to work that hard. You have to remember that we didn't have scholarships. We had about 10 guys leave that first year because they suddenly felt like football wasn't for them."
Harbaugh also wasn't afraid to lead by example. During his second offseason with the team, he got so amped while watching his players struggle to run a steep hill during conditioning drills that he raced up the intimidating slope himself. Despite vomiting and stumbling, he reached the summit. His message to his team that afternoon: Always find a way to get the job done.
Moments like that are why many of Harbaugh's current players rave about their coach's authenticity. "Coach legitimately does not care what anybody thinks about him," 49ers quarterback Alex Smith said. The people at Harbaugh's alma mater realized that shortly after he took the Stanford job in 2007. That was when Harbaugh told reporters that Michigan accepted borderline academic players and steered them into weaker classes. The comments so angered former Michigan running back Mike Hart at the time that he said, "[Harbaugh] isn't a Michigan man. I wish he'd never played here."
An intriguing nature
As much as Harbaugh gained attention for other callous moves -- he also upset former USC coach Pete Carroll, now with the Seattle Seahawks, by attempting a two-point conversion late in a 55-21 Stanford win over the Trojans in 2009 -- his results couldn't be ignored. He went 29-6 in three seasons at USD and finished with the third highest winning percentage (.580) in Stanford history. Since joining the 49ers, Harbaugh has continued to prove himself a winner. His quirky personality also has surprised his players at times.
Smith figured Harbaugh was preparing to dump him when they first met in January. Instead, Harbaugh popped in some game film and peppered Smith -- who had been mediocre in six seasons with the team -- with questions about his decision-making. When Willis met Harbaugh before the lockout began, he figured the coach would talk about a plan for dealing with the labor stoppage. Instead, Harbaugh kept asking Willis about his family and personal life.
Over time, more players noticed their coach's intriguing nature. One day Harbaugh walked out to practice and realized the goal posts were on the wrong side of one field. "He actually grabbed [49ers GM] Trent Baalke and started moving them himself," 49ers kicker David Akers said. "He wasn't standing there looking majestic while some assistant did the grunt work. We were sitting there as players, thinking we should probably help the guy."
Still, there's more to Harbaugh than unconventional mannerisms. He has impressed with his intelligence ("We've won more games in the fourth quarter because of our game management," said long snapper Brian Jennings) and his staff selection ("He's like a great CEO," Willis said. "He's put good people around him."). Added Smith: "Calling [Harbaugh] an offensive coach is an insult. He sees the bigger picture of football. He knows that everybody has to do their jobs to get a win. It's not just the quarterback who's supposed to win it."
Each player on the roster surely has a different moment when he bought into Harbaugh, but they're all there now. Some talk about his humility after the 49ers' season-opening win over Seattle, when Harbaugh first declined the game ball offered by the players before jubilantly accepting it. Others point to the calmness and conviction he displayed at halftime of a 24-23 victory over Philadelphia, when the 49ers trailed by 17 at halftime. And there are those who refer to Harbaugh's near skirmish with Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz after San Francisco's 25-19 win on Oct. 16.
Schwartz was irate after Harbaugh aggressively shook his hand and slapped him on the back in the wake of a big win, so much so that Schwartz chased down Harbaugh before the teams reached the tunnel. What was most noteworthy about the incident was the contrast in reactions. Schwartz was melting down. Harbaugh was nearly oblivious to what was happening until Schwartz was practically in his face.
Looking back, Harbaugh probably was focusing on one thought at the time: Who has it better than us?
"Coach said something the day after that Detroit game that really sums up his whole approach," Jennings said. "He said, 'If the 49ers' success offends you, so be it.' That's perfect, isn't it? If the 49ers success offends you, so be it."
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.