I was really, really late to the Harbaugh party. He was loopy and successful at Stanford, but I’m not a Stanford alum or fan — I only paid attention when he played USC or UCLA. And the 49ers were bad for so long, I didn’t expect them to bounce up so high just because of a coach. Plus, there was a lockout, which limited my interest in football that first season. And then I wondered if the 49ers weren’t just a little lucky, a flash-in-the-pan.
I finally embraced the Harbaugh 49ers two years ago. I started reading everything about Harbaugh, and I came to understand that he is a really interesting, unique, effective person. As most great coaches are.
Harbaugh is always teaching us new lessons (which is funny, because Jed York says he wants his next coach to be a “teacher”). We all expected Harbaugh to diva his way to another NFL team, cash in huge, and stick it to York. But that’s not what he did.
Instead, he went back to college coaching. And sure, there are extenuating circumstances. He is coaching his alma mater, a historically famous football school, heir to a legendary coach. And they are paying him an NFL-level salary (although less than he could command on the open market).
Why did he choose that path? I think he came to understand that success is not happiness, and happiness is not counted in championship rings. This is different from Jed York’s (and many other NFL owners) understanding of the world. A few years ago, when Jerry Sloan retired, I wrote this:
Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant from the player side, along with Pat Riley on the coaching side, have turned a psychotic need to win into one of the most prized attributes of any coach or player. Jerry Sloan never suffered from that. He wanted to win, and tried very hard to do so. But for Sloan, winning was a by-product of playing your hardest and executing perfectly. If you played hard and executed well, you could walk away from any game with your head held high.
More recently, Carmelo Anthony said this:
You can’t control winning. It’s out of your control. You can control what you do. You can control your work ethic and your mind-set. When it comes down to winning, everything has to be synchronized, from ownership all the way down to the staff. Everything has to be in sync.
I don’t have any quotes handy, but at the beginning of this NBA season, Kobe was asked why he returned, and why he returned with the Lakers. And his answers were a little mysterious, but he talked about “going through the process,” and “honoring the process.” I think Kobe (like Carmelo, and Jerry Sloan, and now Jim Harbaugh) has come to understand that happiness does not come from achievement, it comes from striving for achievement. From hope for future success, not reflection on past success. It’s more important to play to win, than to actually win. Here’s a bit from Harbaugh’s farewell press conference:
-Q: You’ve said playing for a Super Bowl title is the ultimate prize and you don’t have one yet. Is that still a goal for you?
-HARBAUGH: We played for it and that’s the way we look at it. Every time we took the field it’s been a tremendous thrill, one of the great thrills of my life and am forever proud of what we accomplished.
By leaving the NFL, and going to Michigan, Harbaugh is also telling us that love and acceptance and trust are really important. Those are the things that have to be synchronized, as Carmelo says. Those things, and the freedom to pursue happiness, are more important than money or trophies.