Blueprint for the Perfect Coach: The Jim Harbaugh Story

First things first, Jim Harbaugh is not a perfect coach. He may never accomplish enough to even be considered a great coach. However, if someone set out to create the perfect coach then following the path that Jim Harbaugh has taken would be a good start. From his birth he has been surrounded by competition, football, and coaching. During his playing days he had a vast array of experiences from nearly the highest highs to the lowest lows. As he has gone through his life he has had the chance to soak up the knowledge of some of football’s greatest coaches who have philosophies and personalities that touch the very edges of the spectrum. A perfect coach would be somebody that has a passion for football and coaching. The perfect coach would be somebody that understands the fundamental X’s and O’s of the game from the inside out. The perfect coach would have to be able to command respect from his players and be able to instill discipline. To truly be the perfect coach he should be able to do all of that while at the same time relate to players while motivating and inspiring them. That is a lot to ask of one man. But that is what would make him the perfect coach. Jim Harbaugh has the personality, passion, and background to try to fulfill those very high standards.

Family and Background
Jack Harbaugh, Jim’s dad, is a football coach. Because of this it allowed Jim to grow up experiencing all of the ups and downs that the life of a football coach entails. His experiences included seeing his dad’s teams win big games and lose big games. By having a coach for a father Jim grew up learning the strong fundamentals of being a football player, which he did, but also the strong fundamentals of being a football coach, a leader and a competitor. This hardworking, blue-collar, competitive background created in Jim a passion for the game of football. To be a great NFL coach there has to be a passion to do it. It is not the kind of job that one does half-heartedly or without a full commitment. Jim has that passion to coach. His dad said in a Sports Illustrated article ‘”He wanted to play at Michigan, have a 15-year career in the NFL and then coach,” Jack said. “He had that road map at an early age.”‘ This is not something that Jim has stumbled into. This is his life’s passion, and that is something that the perfect coach would have.

Playing Career
As a player Jim found success and disappointment during his career. He gained experiences that will allow him to relate to his players in ways that few coaches can. He learned what it was like to be the star on a winning team and the goat on a team that loses. As a college football player at Michigan he finished his Junior year on the #2 ranked team in the country and third in Heisman voting. And that came following a season in which he broke his arm and missed all but five games. He was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the first round only a couple of seasons after they had won the Super Bowl. However, after a few seasons of moderate success Jim and Mike Ditka ended up having a screaming match on the sideline. In a game against the Vikings, after being told not to audible because of the noise, Jim called an audible with his team winning 20-0 and looking to score. The audible led to an interception, lots of blame, and the shouting match with Ditka. The Bears ended up losing that game and finishing 5-11 that year. Ditka got fired and Jim left the team one year later. A couple of years later Jim played for the Colts, he was voted to the Pro Bowl, was named Comeback Player of the Year, AFC Player of the Year, and was runner-up in the NFL MVP voting. He isn’t a Hall of Fame player but he knows what it is like to play at the highest level. He knows what it is like to make a mistake and take a lot of heat. And at the end of his career he learned what it was like to be a journeyman just fighting to stay in the league as he played for four different teams over the final four years of his career. This array of experiences can help him relate to the players on his team from a first round draft pick with high expectations, to a star player at the top of the game, or to the wily vet trying to extend his career a couple more years. That is something that the perfect coach should be able to do.

Coaching and Coaching Influences
When Jim finished his playing career, after 15 seasons just as he planned, he began the next phase. He became a coach. His coaching career began very inauspiciously, as an offensive assistant for the Raiders. He now worked for Al Davis. Al Davis is known as an NFL rebel who only cares about winning. Davis loves speed, throwing the ball deep, and bending the rules. This is a very different philosophy and mentality than some of the other coaches that have influenced Jim. Bo Schembechler’s teams were known as power running teams with great smash mouth defenses. Jim played for Ditka who stressed a similar formula of punishing defense and a strong running game. However, those are not the only influences. Jim also played for Ted Marchibroda with the Colts. Marchibroda was the offensive coordinator for the Bills when they developed the “K-Gun” offense for Jim Kelly. That was a hurry-up, no huddle, shotgun, throwing it all over the place offense. That is about as far from the power running game as you can get. Jim also coached at Stanford where he was able to spend a lot of time with Bill Walsh before his death. Jim spent hours and hours with Walsh. Talking, taking notes, and even recording what Walsh had to say. Walsh is, of course, the one who put the west coast offense on the map. That is an offense based around a short consistent passing game. Walsh was known as a gentleman in the game of football. That is quite a mix of influences, yet that is not all. On top of all of those influences that Jim can fall back on in tough times, he has one more. His brother John is also a current coach in the NFL. That means that Jim has another, current NFL head coach, he trusts implicitly, that he can turn to for advice and ideas. That is the kind of varied experience that the perfect coach would have.

Even though there is no such thing as a perfect coach Jim Harbaugh has the experience, background, and family that gives him the greatest opportunity to strive for that perfection. From the time he was born Jim was on a path to becoming a head coach in the NFL. Jim has a wealth of playing experience that only a few people on the planet can relate to. He has been around great influential coaches from his dad, to Mike Ditka, Al Davis, and Bill Walsh. Those coaches have philosophies that vary from power running to vertical passing and personalities ranging from a gentleman to bulldog. Jim may not be perfect, and may never be great, but he has all the tools and the experience that one could ask for in the perfect coach.

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