Ailene Voisin, sports columnist
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    The partnership between Harbaugh and Colin Kaepernick was inevitable. The coach’s decision to stick with the second-year quarterback could generate conversations for years to come.

  • Ailene Voisin

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Ailene Voisin: Harbaugh's daring, quirkiness will help build his legacy

Published: Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1X
Last Modified: Friday, Jun. 28, 2013 - 12:37 pm

ATLANTA – This is a guy who mentions bar fights. His bar fights. So, really, there is nothing Jim Harbaugh does or says that should surprise.

Harbaugh is tight-lipped most of the time and subtle none of the time. He is daring and defiant, and quirky and demanding, and darn if he wasn't right about Colin Kaepernick.

Think he's heard from Mensa yet?

If Harbaugh wasn't closing in on 50, the 49ers' second-year coach would be listed among the NFL's boy wonders. As it is, he already has become one of the league's most compelling figures and a fixture for one of the Bay Area's storied franchises. He's also playing with so much house money now, his 49ers could lose to the Atlanta Falcons in today's NFC Championship Game, and he would still be a winner.

That sentiment won't last forever, of course. The ring is the thing.

But Harbaugh's ascension has been swift and transformative.

The 49ers are the 49ers again. The 49ers are postseason-relevant again. It wasn't so long ago that their quarterback absorbed more whacks than a pinball machine and management fired offensive coordinators annually.

And it has taken Harbaugh how long? The better part of two seasons?

In what would have been a warm and fuzzy tale amid all the NFL's bone-crunching violence, while the 49ers came within a few fumbles of the 2012 Super Bowl, Alex Smith almost became Barry Zito. He was almost rewarded for all those years of pain and suffering and, yes, loyalty.

Unfortunately for Smith – who like Zito is one of the most thoughtful and accommodating athletes in professional sports – he probably won't get that chance. The NFL doesn't need four starting pitchers. This is a game dictated by elite quarterbacks, with Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and the other superstars most often competing for Super Bowls.

Harbaugh's call on Kaepernick was a classic, a pre-emptive strike in an era of changing offenses and mobile, multidimensional quarterbacks.

No question the Smith-to-Kaepernick handoff was risky and controversial and unconventional. It bordered on outrageous. Bench a veteran who was coming off a 13-3 season and had the best passer rating of his career? An oft-maligned player who bought into the coach's philosophy and soared in the playoffs last season?

So what have you done for us lately, anyway? That's the deal.

After Kaepernick's record-setting romp against the Green Bay Packers, his teammates leaped onto the bandwagon, with several veterans leading the way. The most frequently uttered descriptions of his performance late Jan. 12 included the following: Amazing. Remarkable. Historic. Overpowering. Dominating.

Kaepernick's unique combination of attributes – size, athleticism, arm strength, foot speed, instincts and intellect, etc. – weren't lost in the conversation, either.

This Kaepernick-Harbaugh marriage was inevitable. These two have been soul mates from the beginning, sort of like clones minus the matching tattoos. And although a quarterback controversy has been placed in a deep freeze, the timing of Harbaugh's decision will provoke conversation for days and perhaps decades.

Imagine if Kaepernick had flopped. After the way Smith was playing? After his 2012 postseason?

Harbaugh has big guts. No, he has huge guts.

"For Jim to make a change like that, in the middle of the season, there had to be a compelling reason," said University of San Diego athletic director Ky Snyder, who hired Harbaugh for his first head-coaching job in 2004. "He has a game plan for everything. When we interviewed him, he had a book on how he was going to build our program, how he was going to recruit, what type of offense he planned to run. He's a rah-rah guy, but also a great X and O guy. He just saw … something in Kaepernick. That was quite a coming-out party last week, a phenomenal thing to watch."

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Read more articles by Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin, sports columnist

Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. She earned a bachelor's degree in political science from UNLV and a law degree from the University of San Diego before committing full time to journalism.

Her career includes stops at the San Diego Union, Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and time spent as the backup beat writer for Dodgers and Angels, Clippers and NBA beat writer, sports columnist, along with numerous assignments covering international events and the Olympics. Ailene joined The Sacramento Bee in 1997.

Phone: 916-321-1208
Twitter: @ailene_voisin

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