He follows his instincts, pays no heed to doubters and charges full speed ahead.
Two words have no place in Harbaugh's life: tentative and apprehensive.
“I'm not going to change my style just to survive a season,” Harbaugh told Sports Illustrated after a loss to the Patriots in that 1996 season. “You're born, you play, you coach, you die.”
The Colts aren't in the playoffs this year, but one former player who gave his heart, soul and a chunk of his body for the franchise is alive and well and on the verge of seizing his biggest moment yet.
Harbaugh is in the Indianapolis Colts' Ring of Honor for his days as “Captain Comeback.” He's forever remembered for his tantalizing yet incomplete Hail Mary against the Pittsburgh Steelers that drew the Colts as close to the Super Bowl as they'd get before Peyton Manning succeeded him as quarterback.
Harbaugh is in control of the 49ers because he's never changed his attitude since those playing days.
The game is about preparation and strategy, certainly. But it's also about selling out fully to the cause, something Harbaugh the player has carried on in Harbaugh the coach.
“(They) should just go into this thing and trust their own instincts,” Harbaugh said in a news conference Thursday. “Trust their gut. Make it about the team.”
Harbaugh's essence is built on trusting instincts and sacrificing for team.
Consider a game against the Miami Dolphins in that 1996 season, as chronicled in a New York Times article earlier this season. A key play came when running back Cliff Groce, playing for injured Marshall Faulk, fumbled the ball. Harbaugh sprinted to the ball and dived headfirst into a pile. He reached the bottom, fought with Dolphins linebacker Chris Singleton for the ball and emerged with the ball in his hand.
“(Players) are tugging at your legs, sometimes giving you a shot in the ribs, or gouging your face or the neck,” Harbaugh told reporters. “It's eventful.”
Which quarterbacks today would dive into a pile? That would make for a fun debate. Harbaugh's example of diving in, cultivated with the Colts, continues to inspire today.
Former Colts lineman Tony Siragusa had a great description recently of Harbaugh's competitiveness.
“He wasn't a slider as a quarterback, and guys respected that,” Siragusa told the New York Times. “I expected a certain toughness from him, and he responded. He lived for that crowd reaction, that pressure, coming back after getting hurt. He led our team that had barely any stars to the brink of the Super Bowl. That sums him up right there.”
Harbaugh left a job as an Oakland Raiders assistant to take a tough first job as head coach at the University of San Diego. San Diego does not grant athletic scholarships; its conference opponents do. In other words, it was the perfect underdog situation for Harbaugh.
Harbaugh went 29-6 with two conference titles at San Diego, and then went to a Stanford program that had suffered five straight losing seasons. He had Stanford in a bowl game in three years and USC's Pete Carroll offended by Harbaugh's gung-ho style even sooner.
This season, Harbaugh has taken last year's non-playoff team to the No.2 seed in the NFC and home-field advantage in the divisional round against the Saints. He has transformed the 49ers into a tough-guy team guided by an over-the-top coach whose second claim to fame this season (after his great coaching job) was an over-enthusiastic handshake with Lions coach Jim Schwartz.
Harbaugh's defense, directed by coordinator Vic Fangio, gives the 49ers a fighting chance, even if quarterback Alex Smith is a far cry from Brees.
“It's special being in the playoffs,” Harbaugh said in his Monday news conference. “I want them to feel that. Understand what this is all about. You get one shot.”
Harbaugh probably wasn't referencing his close call with the Colts in 1995, or perhaps he was.
Harbaugh reminisced about that game, and how it stuck with him, in an interview with Pro Football Talk:
“Coming that close to your dream of participating in the Super Bowl, and then seeing it brush by your face in an instant, and you walk off the field and you go ‘There will be other days,' ” Harbaugh said. “And then you realize it was the only day."
Harbaugh's strategic mind is sharp. His track record shows that. But if there's something that he still carries from his playing days with the Colts, it's his passion.
This week, I came across an old, almost forgotten story from 1997 about Harbaugh taking exception to former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly calling him “a baby” who “overdramatized” his injuries on a local television show.
Harbaugh crashed an NBC production meeting and reportedly punched Kelly in the head. Harbaugh said at the time that he regretted punching Kelly because “I have a crack in one of the bones in my hand.” Kelly said the punch never happened.
Harbaugh lost some salary while on the “non-football injured list” due to the incident.
His reputation as a fighter, enhanced that day, continues to grow.