NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh once joked that if his skull was split open, it would reveal a football inside and it probably does not require a surgeon to prove his point.
The son of a coach, the brother of a coach and a former NFL quarterback it was no surprise to anyone when Harbaugh landed a head coaching job with the 49ers two years ago.
Nor, after his success with San Diego and Stanford in the college game, was it a particular shock when he quickly turned around the under-achieving 49ers into Super Bowl contenders.
In his first year he led San Francisco to an NFC title game and then went one better this year, guiding the 49ers to their first Super Bowl in 18 years.
San Francisco defensive end Justin Smith, a four-time Pro Bowler who has been in the league for 12 seasons, says Harbaugh’s expertise allows him to focus on what makes the difference in the game.
“He is a real knowledgeable, Xs and 0’s guy, he knows scheme, he knows every facet that there is and I think that allows him to actually coach instead of just being a motivational guy and media guy,” he told Reuters.
“He actually gets in there and coaches”.
No-one would question Harbaugh’s commitment or passion but what the players appear to appreciate is that he channels that into effective planning rather than the kind of ‘made for video’ emotional speeches that have been preferred by some in the league.
Smith noticed the approach from the outset when Harbaugh and his staff took charge of the Niners.
“It was just pure football and that was one of the best seasons, as far as coaching and player interaction, that I have seen just because it was straight football - there was none of that ‘five keys to success’ and all that other peripheral stuff. I like it,” he said.
Harbaugh though is far from being a dry, strategy-provider, and even if he refrains from the cliche motivational approaches he is intensely competitive.
“He is the same no matter what we do,” said offensive coordinator Greg Roman. “Just last year, in the off-season, a group of us on the coaching staff climbed a mountain in California together and he absolutely had to be the first one to the top.”
Indeed San Francisco media who have observed Harbaugh at close quarters say he appears uncomfortable when he has to deal with ‘non-football’ duties.
Asked this week if he was enjoying his stay in New Orleans, Harbaugh passed on the opportunity for the usual protocol of praise for the host city and answered: “Personally, for myself and our coaches, it’s a very normal week. We find ourselves in the film room, dark rooms, watching tape of the Baltimore Ravens”.
Smith says watching the way the job consumes Harbaugh has taught him a useful lesson.
“He is intense. It lets me know, I can’t be coach,” said Smith. “I like to play, I love the competition but as far as coaching, I see him and I know I don’t have what it takes to be at that caliber.
“He just has a passion for football that I’ve never really seen.”
The intensity will be ratcheted up as the hours tick down towards kick-off in the Superdome.
“He’s very focused and it builds during the week,” said Roman.
“I’ve been a lot of big games with him and he is just going to get more focused as the week goes on.”
Editing by Steve Keating