The San Francisco 49ers’ recent hiring of Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh brought lots of smiles to faces in the Bay Area. After the unsuccessful tenures of Dennis Erickson (overall record of 9-23), Mike Nolan (overall record of 18-37), and Mike Singletary (overall record of 18-22), the news of the Harbaugh hire had Niner Nation wondering if the glory days of Bill Walsh were set to re-emerge. While Bay Area columnists like Mark Purdy have been quick to dismiss any comparisons between Walsh and Harbaugh, I would argue that Harbaugh’s offensive pedigree (both at the University of San Diego and Stanford) coupled with his willingness to reinstate the West-coast offense suggests that a Walsh-like system is at least more likely to emerge now than at any other point thus far in the 21st century.
For those unfamiliar with the 49ers’ new head coach, Jim Harbaugh grew up in the Bay Area and attended Palo Alto High School, before heading to the University of Michigan to play his college ball. Then, after being drafted by the Chicago Bears in 1987, Harbaugh played quarterback in the NFL for a number of teams, including the Colts and Chargers, until 2001. He then served as an offensive assistant and quarterbacks coach for the Oakland Raiders, before getting his first head-coaching gig at the University of San Diego. While there, he compiled an overall record of 29-6, winning 2 Pioneer Football League Championships in 3 years. In 2006, Harbaugh replaced Walt Harris as the head coach at Stanford, and turned around a slumping Stanford program, boasting an overall record of 29-21 (including two 2nd place finishes in the Pac-10) in four years.
Now to evaluating the hire…
1. Harbaugh is an offensive mind.
The San Francisco 49ers have not hired an offensive-minded coach since Steve Mariucci (unless, of course, you count Denny Erickson as an offensive mind). Erickson aside, though, Nolan and Singletary were both known for their defensive prowess. Their defensive mindset, however, did not jive well with well-respected offensive coordinators (namely, Nolan with Norv Turner, and Singletary with Mike Martz). The result: 6 different offensive coordinators over Alex Smith’s 6-year career.
Unlike Nolan and Singletary, Harbaugh brings an offensive mind to the head coaching spot. In his first press conference as the 49ers’ new head coach, Harbaugh pledged to reinstate the West Coast offense, stating, “Absolutely we will install the West Coast offense in San Francisco, the birthplace of the West Coast offense.” Moreover, he brings with him from Stanford a pro-style offense which borrowed heavily from Walsh’s West Coast style.
2. Harbaugh grooms quarterbacks.
A quarterback himself both at Michigan and at the pro-level, Harbaugh has specialized in grooming quarterbacks since entering the coaching ranks. While in Oakland, he helped reinvigorate the quarterbacking career of Rich Gannon. Moreover, while at Stanford, he groomed Andrew Luck, a quarterback that almost all draft experts had going 1st overall in the draft, until he elected to return to Stanford for his senior season.
Beyond just grooming quarterbacks however, Harbaugh also acknowledges the importance of the position – something (ironically enough) not recognized by his immediate predecessor. During his two-and-a-half year tenure in San Francisco, Mike Singletary repeatedly claimed that the quarterback is not the single most important position on a team. And, well, Singletary’s record speaks for itself. As for Harbaugh, his answer was quite the opposite: “Everybody’s role is important. But the quarterback does touch the ball every single play. Maybe I’m a little biased, but it is the most important position on a football team. It’s the most difficult position in all of sports.”
3. Harbaugh adds offensive prowess while keeping Singletary-esque fire.
Let’s give credit where credit is due. Despite being a poor game-manager, Singletary did bring fire and discipline to the sidelines. But he probably took it one step too far. Mooning the players and straightening out Vernon Davis were positives, but him taking the discipline “shtick” too far was best exemplified in the final game of the season, when he was seen engaging in a shouting match with then-quarterback Troy Smith.
Fortunately, Harbaugh, at least at the college level, has proven to be a better game manager than Singletary. Plus, he brings the right kind of fire to his team. He is less of a disciplinarian and more of a guy who pumps his players up. That is to say, his fire results in more positive energy than negative energy.
The (Big) Minus
1. Harbaugh lacks NFL coaching experience.
What do Nick Saban, Dennis Erickson, and Pete Carroll all have in common? They’re all coaches that made the jump from the college game to the Pros. And all of them met with very little success in the NFL, despite having illustrious careers as their respective college programs. There’s no doubt the college game differs drastically from the NFL, and that many respected names have misjudges how difficult making the transition would be.
So will Harbaugh just be another name added to that list? Let’s hope not. I think his success will largely turn on the 49ers being able to recruit a solid QB as well as a strong group of assistant coaches. With DC Manusky appearing to be on his way out and Mike Johnson unlikely to remain the offensive coordinator, Harbaugh must fill these vacancies with NFL-proven coordinators. If he does, and the 49ers are able to do better than A. Smith at QB, the future looks bright for Niner Nation.
 From Purdy’s January 9th article in the San Jose Mercury News: “Walsh was cool jazz. Harbaugh is Metallica. Walsh liked to motivate his players with quiet psychology and occasionally with sarcastic challenges. Harbaugh likes to pump up the adrenaline and promote man-to-man combat. Walsh cleverly jousted with the media. Harbaugh likes to dictate his own terms.”