Monday wasn’t the first time Jim Harbaugh – with gusto – felt compelled to set the record straight.
For those just catching up, in an interview with Sports Illustrated this week the 49ers coach dumped a barrel of ice water on all the spicy-hot rumors that have been swirling since a Harbaugh-was-poised-for-Cleveland report surfaced Feb. 21.
He said he is not gunning for a big contract. He said he is not unhappy with general manager Trent Baalke. And he said he will not leave the 49ers before the remaining two years of his contract expire.
In other words: Everything is great. How are you?
It was similar to Harbaugh’s out-of-the-blue denial in May 2012 that the 49ers ever had an interest in signing quarterback Peyton Manning. The 49ers and Manning? Harbaugh made it sound like the most insane idea he had ever come across.
“It’s an erroneous perception that we were flirting with Peyton Manning,” he said nearly 21/2 months after Manning signed with Denver. “I keep hearing that over and over again. It’s silly, and it’s untrue. It’s phony.”
Harbaugh insisted the 49ers were committed to Alex Smith at quarterback. Always were. Never wavered.
Later that year, Harbaugh made an unscheduled stop at the podium to deride, chide and otherwise wag his finger at reporters who had been critical of first-round draft pick A.J. Jenkins.
“I’ll go on record: A.J. is going to be an outstanding football player,” a fired-up Harbaugh said. “ ... There are these so-called experts who are making these comments, and there’s going to be an I-told-you-so. I foresee that happening.”
It turns out the 49ers weren’t committed to Smith (traded to the Chiefs) and Jenkins (traded to the Chiefs) was not outstanding.
Here’s the common thread in those examples and in the most recent one: Harbaugh will say anything to keep his team strong. Winning comes above all else. And if he has to massage the truth or parse words here and there – to keep his quarterback happy, to keep the locker room tight or to motivate a first-round pick who gets knocked to the ground in non-contact practices – he does it.
“As Mr. Al Davis said so profoundly, ‘Just win baby,’ ” Harbaugh said after beating Carolina in January. It’s the NFL way of saying the ends justify the means.
Winning also is what makes Harbaugh popular in the locker room.
Do you think 30-something veterans Justin Smith and Frank Gore still love the “Who’s got it better than us?” chant after three years? What they love is Harbaugh has brought them – players who had been on losing teams for most of their careers – to within a hair’s breadth of the Super Bowl in two of the three years he’s been in town and nearly landed a title in the other.
That’s why wide receiver Anquan Boldin on Monday said he laughed when he read about a rift between Harbaugh and his players.
“I heard of no griping in the locker room when it comes to coach Harbaugh,” he said. “Like I said, he’s a guy that wants to win. Everybody in the locker room wants to do the same thing.”
It’s also why, while no one should believe everything that comes out of Harbaugh’s mouth, his central point from his recent interview is valid: He does not want to leave the 49ers.
His best chance of winning a Super Bowl isn’t in Cleveland or the University of Texas or the University of Miami. It’s here, where he has a loaded roster, a talented quarterback, a new stadium and a chance to compete against archrival Pete Carroll two (or more) times a year.
And, finally, it’s the reason Baalke will tolerate confrontations with Harbaugh and what will motivate owner Jed York to try to bridge the contract impasse with his coach.
Unlike Mike Nolan, Harbaugh knows quarterbacks. Unlike Mike Singletary, he knows what motivates players.
And, most of all, he knows how to win.