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San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh thrives in chaos and difficulty - ESPN interview


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You know, he can get a tad... crazy-obsessive.

A cold war was heating up. A speech Harbaugh delivered to the team a few days later, entitled "2014 1st Team Meeting," explained his approach to battle. He usually writes in a spiral notebook, but this was typed and eight pages long. "I will be your alarm clock and wake you early," he said. "It can be a great temptation to rest on the field and let the opponent have a play without making him pay for every inch. I must hold his pain where it is. Mine does not matter. ... The punishment I inflict, his fatigue, and that he is up against something that he does not comprehend is everything."

It was vintage Harbaugh, sincere and obsessive, inspiring and crazed. And its decisive moment, as Harbaugh described how he fights in the trenches, contained a clue as to why a coach who has won 74.5 percent of his games might just be expendable: "My opponent is going to have to die. But does he have to kill me too? He is killing me. But he has a right to. I have never seen a greater opponent than him.

"I do not care who kills who now."

I love the story of Jim Harbaugh getting his ass kicked:

When I first read the line, I didn't buy it. If anything, Harbaugh cares too much. "Jim can't have an interaction without a winner or loser," one 49ers staffer says. But as we're playing catch, an old Harbaugh story makes me reconsider.

As a rookie benchwarmer in 1987, he begged the Bears to let him play special teams. He throws me the ball -- even at 50, his passes produce the hiss exclusive to pro quarterbacks -- and recalls the moment. He was on kickoff duty, charged with keeping contain. He was sprinting, battling a blocker, when a second one drilled him under the arm, knocking him off his feet, out of bounds and into excruciating pain. "It was embarrassing," he says.

It's strange to watch a proud man relive a story about getting his ass kicked. But as I throw back to him, I remember another line from his preseason speech -- "Keep your head clear and suffer like a man" -- and think maybe it isn't so strange after all.

Harbaugh doesn't want to be liked. He just wants to win.

Who's tough enough? Who can hang? Harbaugh creates tests the way a workaholic creates work. His battles with the Stanford administrators, mostly over admitting qualified recruits, are legendary, and not missed, in Palo Alto, California. He'll burst into York's office at the crack of dawn with a problem that needs to be solved now. He sometimes uses his news conferences to back players in contract disputes, pitting them against the suits. Then he puts those players through miserable practices, leaving some of them to wonder whether, despite his mantra, others do have it better than they do. It's exhausting. According to someone who knows him well, Harbaugh has "figured out how to not be liked and how to function. It's been a strength his entire life. If he's going against you, he hates you."

I love that he has a note from Ditka in his office.

Harbaugh's gift for getting the best out of quarterbacks always seemed to be, like everything else, born out of his uncompromising combativeness. All of his stars -- beginning with Josh Johnson at USD, continuing with Andrew Luck at Stanford and culminating with Alex Smith andColin Kaepernick in San Francisco -- knew that, deep inside, Harbaugh would be hell-bent to prove he could still play. But the truth is, Harbaugh also showers quarterbacks with the greatest gift they could receive: unfailing belief. He learned how to throw by aiming newspapers at doorsteps, so he celebrates different styles while other coaches might nitpick and overanalyze. Watch how Harbaugh pats Kaepernick's shoulder pads after an interception or takes the bullets at a presser after the young quarterback is unconscionably slow getting off a play.

In his office, Harbaugh has a framed note from Mike Ditka. They famously exploded in 1992 after Harbaugh defied Ditka's orders and audibled to a pass play that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. One writer wrote that on the sideline, "Ditka grabbed Harbaugh and shook the confidence out of him." Harbaugh later admitted that the ordeal left him gun-shy, unthinkable for a man so cocky he once circled a picture of a model in a magazine, handed it to a Bears staffer and asked him to track down her number. Harbaugh's career in Chicago ended a year after that blowup. He had to start over. The will that produced Captain Comeback with the Colts in 1995 wasn't solidified in last-minute wins. It was the natural output of a healed scar.

The note, which Ditka sent after Harbaugh retired, reads, "I am still -- believe it or not -- your greatest fan."

"Meant a lot to me," Harbaugh says simply.

I like the story of Jim fighting his brother John (who now coaches the Ravens).

Harbaugh ended his training camp speech with a story, words for the players to live by this season, almost a premonition of what has transpired since. The story began, as many do, in his childhood. John was 10; Jim was 8. John had always stuck up for Jim in fights, but one day in their yard, John pushed Jim. So Jim punched John in the stomach. John welled up, and their dad came outside.

What happened?

Jim punched me.

Why did you punch him?

'Cause he pushed me!

Dad said to John, "If you push someone, then they might punch you back. You understand?'"

Dad said to me, "Jim, do you have something you want to say to your brother?"

I said, "Good, now he knows."

"I learned that day that you can't count on anyone fighting for you except for you," Harbaugh told the team. "You have to be prepared to fight and finish your own battles. We have 16 fights and finishes scheduled -- playoffs and Super Bowl to be determined. That wouldn't make a bad T-shirt!"

Harbaugh quotes Emerson.

As long as all that's written is said against me, then I feel a certain assurance of success.

Catch is finished. We're walking toward the 49ers building. Harbaugh is relaxed. I'm anxious, because I'm about to pose the question I've posed to everyone else.

"What is it about you that people find so difficult?"

"Oh, I don't know," Harbaugh says.

He leans back slightly, kicks his one-inch cleats in the grass. He suddenly seems tired, as if he thinks he gets a bum rap but doesn't want to admit it. I worry he's going to take the ball and fire it at my nose.

He stares at me, not with the look he gave Seely, but one gentler, wiser, more weathered, the sun highlighting the gray in his short hair and deepening the creases around his eyes. He grins and, of course, enlists a little help.

"There's a saying by Ralph Waldo Emerson," he says. "'As long as all that's written is said against me, then I feel a certain assurance of success. If people are heaping flowery words of praise upon me, then I feel exposed to my enemies.'"

Now I'm the one staring blankly. Seconds pass.

He says it again: "As long as all that's written is said against me, then I feel a certain assurance of success."

Then, he hands me the ball as a souvenir and says, "I prefer that."

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