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SportsTuesday Column: The making of a champion

By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published January 22, 2013

Two weeks ago, Jim Harbaugh arranged for a small laminated sheet to be hung above every San Francisco 49ers locker.

Players from different decades, from Randy Moss to Patrick Willis to Colin Kaepernick, peered above their lockers after a team meeting to investigate. Each sheet was different. The white plaques had each player’s recruiting rankings, college logo and a grainy photo from high school.

Some, like Moss, had No. 1 rankings splashed across the sheet. Others, like Ray McDonald, were nobodies, unranked and forgotten. Harbaugh asked only that the 49ers look back at themselves and remember.

“Coach really wants us to tap into what we wanted to be at that time,” safety Donte Whitner told the Los Angeles Times. “When you look at this picture, it’s like, ‘At this moment, what did I want to be?’ ”

What they wanted to be was never in question. They wanted to be champions.

On Feb. 3, the 49ers will battle the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. On one sideline, Jim Harbaugh. On the other, John Harbaugh.

The 49ers are right where they want to be.

Harbaugh never made a laminated sheet for himself. “They didn’t have the Internet back in 1982 that I’m aware of,” he told reporters with a laugh. But he surely knows the answer to the question he asked his team: What did you want to be?


Jim Harbaugh wanted to be a champion.

He spent much of his childhood in Ann Arbor, around the bend from Ann Arbor Pioneer High School, where he and John both starred on the dusty prep football field across the intersection from Michigan Stadium.

The sons of a journeyman assistant coach, Jack Harbaugh, who found his footing as an assistant coach under Bo Schembechler at Michigan, the boys were born to coach. When their father accepted a defensive coordinator position at Stanford in 1980, the boys parted ways, John to play defensive back at Miami (Ohio), Jim to finish his last two years of high school in Palo Alto, Calif.

Hold on. You know what happens next, sure, but just hold on. Step back and think of what you know about Jim Harbaugh right now. What is he? Who is he?

Today, Jim is one of the fieriest head coaches in the NFL. He’s gruff, he’s tough, he’s a ticking time bomb on the sideline. He has an edge. His brother is nothing like that. His father really wasn’t either.

Jim was the son of a coach, the brother of a coach, the brother-in-law of a coach. Even one of his babysitters was a coach.

But it came from somewhere else, somewhere beyond the reaches of the Harbaugh coaching tree. If we’re on the same page here, you’re thinking one thing: It all comes back to Bo. It always does.

Never a touted recruit despite his peerless coaching pedigree, Jim almost didn’t return to Ann Arbor. He isn’t your prototypical ‘Michigan Man,’ you see; maybe it’s hard to cultivate that deathless loyalty when your father coaches at five different schools since you entered grade school.

No, Jim didn’t come back for the block ‘M,’ or for the winged helmet or for the maize and blue. He came back for Bo.

“I really didn’t think I’d be back here,” Jim admitted in 1985. “But, when I came here for my visit, sitting in Bo’s office, he said he wanted me and I said, ‘OK, I’ll come.’ It was as easy as that.”

It makes sense, really. Jim was raised to understand the value of a coach, a maker of men. And Bo was the epitome of coach. He was fiery, he had sideline antics. He sure had an edge, too.

“He always seemed larger than life to me. I put him on a pedestal,” Jim said after his senior season. “Now, I view Bo more as a human being. He’s both a coach and a friend.

“I still realize, though, that I’m playing for a living legend.”

He liked Schembechler’s style, his tenacity, his demand for excellence. He once told the story of when he overslept a team meeting by five minutes during his freshman year.

“Bo was mad,” Jim recalled. “He made me go sit in the back, said I’d never take a snap for Michigan, said he was going to call my dad — which he did.

“But if I had a dollar bill for every guy Bo said would never play a down at Michigan, I’d be a rich man.”

As quarterback, Jim wanted to be a champion, wanted to give that living legend his deserved ring.