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COLUMN

49ers coach Harbaugh becoming the new Belichick

More Information

Colts at San Francisco

Kickoff: 4:25 p.m. Sunday in Candlestick Park
TV: CBS
Radio: WOWO, 1190-AM

For more sports commentary, follow Reggie Hayes via Twitter at www.twitter.com/reggiehayes1

They share common traits of being blunt and winning like crazy

Wednesday, September 18, 2013 - 2:42 am

No one likes Jim Harbaugh.

In fact, Harbaugh may be the successor to Bill Belichick, the New England Patriots coach, as the most popular target of opposing fan scorn.

I'm using “no one” in an exaggerated sense, of course. San Francisco 49ers fans adore Harbaugh's winning coaching ways, last week's loss to the Seattle Seahawks notwithstanding. Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, who played college ball for Harbaugh at Stanford, has nice things to say about him. Harbaugh's friends and family love him as you would expect.

But in general, Harbaugh's prevailing image seems to be that of a combative, complaining, arrogant jerk.

And he really annoys people by winning too much.

Harbaugh shares no obvious connections with Belichick, but they share a common denominator: They do things their way while winning far more than they lose.

Harbaugh will face the team he made his mark with as a player – the Colts – at 4:25 p.m. Sunday in San Francisco's Candlestick Park.

The 49ers are in a rare situation since Harbaugh revived the franchise. They're coming off a sound beating, 29-3 by the Seattle Seahawks. The result left Harbaugh looking dog-faced and glum in his Monday news conference. “We have to bounce back in a big way,” he said.

That loss aside, what Harbaugh has done as coach is transform the 49ers into a team built on physical and mental toughness, a stingy defense and an innovative offense. These attributes tie into Harbaugh's personality as a supreme competitor and tough guy. He was a quarterback as a player, but with a linebacker's mentality. “He wasn't a slider,” former Colts teammate Tony Siragusa put it, succinctly, a couple years ago.

There's an edge to Harbaugh in all that he does. It's often that off-field nature – his inability to dial down his competitive side – that leads people to dislike him from a distance.

He's provided fodder already this season.

After the 49ers beat the Green Bay Packers in their opening game, Harbaugh held nothing back in talking about Packers linebacker Clay Matthews' out-of-bounds hit on 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and subsequent slapping of 49ers left tackle Joe Staley.

“I think that young man works very hard on being a tough guy,” Harbaugh said. “He'll have some repairing to do to his image after the slap. ...If you're going to go to the face, come with some knuckles, not an open slap.”

The Packers and their fans took offense, as expected, although Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy said he would “stay above it.”

After the 49ers' one-sided loss to the Seahawks, Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman said Harbaugh ignored him when he went up to the coach after the game. Sherman played at Stanford under Harbaugh but said earlier the two do not have any relationship now.

“I told him 'good job, good game,' but he didn't give me nothing back,” Sherman said. “I guess sportsmanship doesn't go both ways.”

Harbaugh said later he did not see it was Sherman until the player was walking away. When asked about Sherman's comments Monday, Harbaugh said he had not heard them.

Harbaugh also has times in news conferences where he can be short or sarcastic with reporters. Much like Belichick – and most coaches – he answers the questions he wants to answer.

Winning a press conference with charm has nothing to do with being a winning football coach, obviously. Since becoming a head coach, Harbaugh has proved his ability to turn so-so teams into winners. He did so in college at San Diego and Stanford and he turned around a mediocre 49ers franchise in one season.

Yet for every positive Harbaugh moment, there's a run-in with opposing coaches, including Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, a rivalry that dates to their Stanford-USC days, and Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz of the 2011 post-game handshake debacle.

The bottom line is winning, of course. As long as Harbaugh continues to win and speak his mind, he'll continue to be a polarizing personality. His record in his third season is 25-8-1 (.758).

He also has a knack for grooming and developing quarterbacks. Kaepernick has emerged as one of the NFL's top young quarterbacks and he became a starter when Harbaugh had the guts to make a midseason change last year, benching Alex Smith. Smith is now a starter, and off to a good start, with the Kansas City Chiefs.

While he's willing to make player moves that improve his team, Harbaugh is protective of his players, too. He avoids criticizing them in public. Kaepernick threw three interceptions in the loss to Seattle and afterward Harbaugh pointed out that he thought Kaerpernick played the best of all his offensive players. Harbaugh is savvy enough to build up his players when they need it most.

It's hyperbole to say "no one" likes Harbaugh.

But one sign of stature for an NFL coach is how much opposing fans love to see you lose. For years, opposing fans have relished the sour face of Belichick after losses. The same goes for Harbaugh now.

Harbaugh, like Belichick, rarely gives them that pleasure.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.