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COURSEY: Jim Harbaugh drops the ball as role model

Published: Monday, February 4, 2013 at 12:06 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, February 4, 2013 at 2:32 p.m.

Jim Harbaugh may be a genius as a coach of professional football players, but I sure wouldn't want to see him leading kids involved with youth football or Little League.

The head coach of the San Francisco 49ers certainly knows his Xs and Os, but sportsmanship just isn't his thing.

His post-Super Bowl comments on Sunday focused not on his team's stirring comeback or his older brother John's big day coaching the Baltimore Ravens to victory. Instead, he complained about the officiating, implying that the referees were the cause of San Francisco's narrow defeat.

"We want to handle this thing with class and grace," he said in his post-game press conference.

But he didn't. He repeatedly complained that the referees should have called pass interference or holding during the 49ers' last series of plays when they failed to score from the five-yard line.

And, whether he wanted it or not, those complaints became his headlines after the game. And the image of Harbaugh that America saw on Sunday and woke up to this morning was the coach on the sideline, hat and headset thrown to the ground, mouth open in full scream at the officials, gesture indicating the penalty he wanted called.

From the first time most of us touch a football or baseball or soccer ball, we're taught that is not how to play the game. Or at least we should be. Sports should be about teamwork and accomplishment, not whining and placing blame. Coaching should be about leading and teaching players, not throwing hissy fits on the sideline.

His supporters excuse Harbaugh as “intense” and “focused,” “competitive” and “old school.” They say he is fiercely loyal to his players and isn't concerned with outside distractions. And there is nothing wrong with any of that.

But Harbaugh, whether he likes it or not, also is a role model. He is not a quarterback any more, or a college student, or a little brother trying to get into the game. He is a professional leader of men, a high-profile public figure who is paid a lot of money to be the face of one of the top teams in the NFL.

But that face too often is twisted in derision. At the officials. At the media. At other coaches.

Sunday wasn't the first time Harbaugh has acted like a spoiled, whining child at a time that cried out for a composed, competent leader. His sideline histrionics have become a staple of his personality. In the NFC Championship game two weeks ago, he threw a full-scale tantrum after a referee's replay call went against his team. His outburst, complete with a flailing arms, stomping feet and howls against the injustice of it all, became a YouTube hit.

During press conferences – a routine part of the job description for NFL coaches – Harbaugh makes clear his disdain for the media. He brushes off reasonable questions from reporters with aggressive stares, screwed-up facial contortions and curt non-answers. He seems to forget that when he's speaking to the media, he's also speaking to fans.

He has even turned the post-game handshake with the opposing coach – one of the few nods to good sportsmanship left in pro football – into an adventure. His pugnacious personality nearly led to post-game blows with Detroit Lions Coach Jim Schwartz last season.

The 49ers, much like the San Francisco Giants, are an easy team to like. They have talented, interesting players such as Colin Kaepernick and Patrick Willis. They have guys you want to root for such as Frank Gore and Alex Smith. They win in exciting ways, and on Sunday they almost won it all.

But their coach is losing me. He needs to grow up.

Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County

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