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Harbaugh showing leadership skills the 49ers can build on

Published: Saturday, December 22, 2012 at 5:22 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, December 22, 2012 at 5:22 p.m.

This is in praise of Jim Harbaugh. He demonstrated fierce, wise, tenacious leadership in one case, for sure, the Case of Colin Kaepernick vs. Alex Smith. This is the kind of leadership he can build on — must build on as this season plays out. Let’s examine what he did well.

He identified Kaepernick as the better quarterback. That means he knows what he’s looking at, knows what will win, knows what he wants.

He must have identified Kaepernick’s superiority long ago but kept his mouth shut. Why did he keep his mouth shut? If you answered “to spare Smith’s feelings,” you get the buzzer. He kept his mouth shut because there was no advantage in talking. In every situation, Harbaugh asks himself, “What’s the advantage for the team?”

When Smith suffered a concussion, Harbaugh leapt on the opportunity to insert Kaepernick. At first, he said he had two starting quarterbacks. Even he might have known how silly that sounded, although he never minds sounding silly. Why does he not mind sounding silly? That’s a tough one. Maybe his feelings don’t get hurt easily. He’s a football coach, not a poet. Or, he is tone deaf and doesn’t know what sounding silly sounds like.

Now comes the great leadership part. He stuck with Kaepernick in spite of all hell breaking loose in the Bay Area. We haven’t seen a controversy like this since Joe vs. Steve. I like to call the Smith defenders the “Smithers.” Well, the Smithers were writing into my blog by the legion. They sent me stats. They must have been expressing their outrage on other blogs and in emails to the Niners.

Harbaugh could not have cared less. His posture seemed to grow more erect as the controversy got louder.

He did not mind if, at first, there was mixed opinion among his players. Joe Staley came out publicly as a Smither. Smith himself said on several occasions, “It sucks.” From his point of view, it most certainly did.

You can bet the coaching staff had some doubters. It always works that way. Smith had been a winner. Smith still had a stellar passer rating and completion percentage. This was a highly controversial switch that Harbaugh made.

On all sides, Harbaugh was being pursued by the furies of doubt and criticism and condemnation and, as far as we know, he never wavered for a second.

Think about that. In professional sports, coaches often make the decision that comes with the least criticism. Harbaugh went out of his way to make the decision that came with the most criticism. He didn’t mind. He loved it.

He put himself in a knight fork, where he remains today. I’m using a chess analogy here.

If Harbaugh had gone back to Smith after the Niners walloped the Bears and if he stayed with Smith and if the 49ers do not win the Super Bowl, it is Harbaugh’s fault for not sticking with Kaepernick.

But Harbaugh stuck with Kaepernick. If he continues with Kaepernick — that seems likely — and the Niners do not win the Super Bowl, people with blame Harbaugh for dumping Smith. Smithers will claim Smith could have won the Super Bowl.

Knight Fork City.

Does Harbaugh care?

Nah.

So, I’m praising Harbaugh for his football vision and for his unwavering resolve. Those are enormous benefits in a head football coach.

I want to make it perfectly clear what I am NOT praising him for.

I am not saying he is a great coach. He may become one, but he is not one now. This is no knock on Harbaugh. It’s just that he has not been around long to establish greatness. I don’t count the Stanford years. Part of greatness is longevity, winning one Super Bowl and then doing it again.

I covered Bill Walsh, who had three Super Bowl rings, and George Seifert who had two. Harbaugh has no Super Bowl rings.

Greatness involves creating a coaching tree. Walsh's coaching tree is well known. Bill Belichick has created one of his own. Harbaugh is in no position to create a tree, although he may in the future. There is talk offensive coordinator Greg Roman may take a head coaching job in college or the NFL after this season. He could be the beginning of a Harbaugh tree, although in my opinion, that branch should have been pruned long ago.

We give Harbaugh high praise for defeating Sean Payton and Belichick and Mike McCarthy and Tom Coughlin once (he lost to Coughlin twice) and we say Harbaugh is filled with potential.

But today, we limit our heartfelt praise to the Kaepernick-Smith case. For the time being, that should suffice.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.

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