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Coach Jim Harbaugh

Harbaugh in full military mode in London

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Monday, Nov. 11, 2013 - 12:56 pm

LONDON – When Mike Singletary vowed that his struggling 49ers would have their "finest hour" in London three years ago, he didn't realize he was quoting the greatest Briton in the past 100 years, and on British soil no less.

Singletary's successor won't make the same oversight.

Hanging above the desk of 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh in Santa Clara is a framed black-and-white photograph of Winston Churchill flashing his signature "V" for victory sign at the end of World War II.

Harbaugh sips coffee from a mug featuring Churchill's likeness. Harbaugh's bookshelf is full of Churchill biographies, including William Manchester's three-part "The Last Lion" series. And when Harbaugh wants to inspire a team or punctuate a moment, he borrows from the former British prime minister and famous orator.

In fact, Harbaugh quoted Churchill in the team huddle after practice Friday, hours before the 49ers set off on a two-week trip that includes this Sunday's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in London: "History will be kind to us because we intend to write it," he told his players.

Did any of them pick up on the reference?

"There were nods," Harbaugh said with a laugh. "(Linebacker Nate) Stupar nodded."

The 49ers will practice this week at a country club in Watford, north of London. The players, and especially the coaches, won't have much time to tour the city.

But Harbaugh said one of his goals is to see the underground cabinet war rooms on Downing Street, where Churchill and his staff ran Britain's World War II efforts during the Blitz. After all, he'd like to pay homage to his favorite historical figure.

"The perseverance. The titanium in the spine. The iron will. The character," he said. "If our leaders in D.C. had half that character, it would be a different world right now."

Harbaugh's knowledge – and his quotations – extend beyond Churchill. He is a military history buff with books on the Civil War and 20th-century conflicts atop the stack on his bedside table.

Family members say his love of history began in Mrs. Hiller's fifth-grade class at St. Francis of Assisi in Ann Arbor, Mich.

"You know how there's always one teacher who sparks your interest, really opens your eyes?" his father, Jack, said. "For Jim, that was Mrs. Hiller."

Harbaugh's interest grew deeper when he realized his two coaching idols – Michigan's Bo Schembechler and especially Ohio State's Woody Hayes – were history nuts.

Hayes was fascinated by Gen. George S. Patton and was friends with President Richard Nixon. He taught military history at Ohio State.

"He had a deep, abiding respect and appreciation for the military," Harbaugh said. "And therefore I, through Woody Hayes, have come to have the same deep, abiding respect and appreciation for the military and its correlation with the game of football."

That correlation can be a delicate one. A number of players and coaches have been chided in recent years for referring to themselves as soldiers and linking themselves to the military.

For Harbaugh, however, it's not mere lip service. He has brought in four-star generals and servicemen to speak to the team, and before the 49ers played the Redskins last season, they visited Arlington National Cemetery.

Col. Jim Minnick, a friend since the eighth grade, has spoken to Harbaugh's teams on several occasions. Minnick, in fact, was on hand as the 49ers went through their final walkthrough in a hotel ballroom before they faced the Chiefs in the preseason. Afterward, Minnick told Harbaugh he liked the "ROCK" the 49ers performed.

"Rock? What rock?" Harbaugh asked Minnick.

"Rehearsal of Combat Knowledge," Minnick replied.

Harbaugh and the 49ers have since referred to the team's final preparation as a ROCK instead of a walkthrough.

"There's a lot of parallels there, in my opinion," Harbaugh said. "And the military, the American military, they've been doing it for 400 and something years. They've been doing it a lot longer than we've been doing football. So we definitely can learn a lot from them."

Read Matthew Barrows' blogs at and listen for his reports Tuesdays on ESPN Radio 1320.

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Read more articles by Matthew Barrows


Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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