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Jim Harbaugh's sideline antics may be harmful to 49ers

Published: Tuesday, February 5, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, February 5, 2013 at 11:30 p.m.

SANTA CLARA -- Go on the internet. Look for a video called, “The Best Jim Harbaugh Freakouts.” It's easy to find.

It shows the 49ers' coach freaking out on the sideline during games, a wild man throwing his clipboard, screaming at the refs, screaming at who knows who. Just screaming.

If Harbaugh were a child, you'd call it pitching a fit. You'd send him to his room. This I freely admit, the freakout video is funny and there's something elemental about Harbaugh, even enjoyable. But you probably wouldn't invite him over for dinner. If he didn't like pot roast, he might throw it or you out the window.

Of course, we in the Bay Area knew about Freaking Jim long before the Niners lost to the Ravens last Sunday, knew all about his tantrums, his horrible manners, mostly directed at the media. Which means they are directed at you, the fans.

But two things changed Super Bowl Sunday.

First, an enormous national audience got to see the Freaking coach. From what I've read, some rational people were taken aback by such blatant fury so out of proportion to the immediate stimuli. Lots of people didn't like the Harbaugh Show. One commentator on ESPN called him a “buffoon.”

Second, Harbaugh lost the game, making him the only 49ers' coach to lose the big one. When you are a winner, people will put up with just about anything. And in Harbaugh's case, they sure have.

But when you lose, when you are just another Super Bowl loser, there's a sense of a contract broken. People notice you. They tend to be more critical. Aside from the tantrums, the whining about the officials, people notice — or recall — Harbaugh being snide, condescending, rude, intolerant, secretive, defensive, unsubtle and, worst of all, uninteresting.

Harbaugh the man, fell victim to Harbaugh the loser coach.

Life can be so unfair.

What is wrong with Harbaugh going off on the sideline, especially during the Super Bowl?

Let's start with the easy stuff. It's a bad look. He represents the San Francisco 49ers, an organization that used to care about its public image. Does it still? Big money corporations generally don't like lunatics out front — when I write “lunatics,” I'm being metaphorical, not literal.

The tantrums make Harbaugh look like a sore sport, which he undoubtedly is. And, in a certain sense — even today — sports still have something to do with sportsmanship.

Now we go deeper. Freaking Jim was yakking at the officials all the time. Not wise. Officials are people just like you me, and they have pride and don't like a coach showing them up. At some point — maybe in the Super Bowl — they take offense, don't lean in Harbaugh's direction. It always is smart to be polite to people with the final say.

And there's this. When a coach is freaking out, he is absorbed with his anger and indignation, and he is not thinking about the next play. His mind is not where it should be. Harbaugh's mind was not where it should have been at crucial parts of the game — the very first offensive play when his players lined up wrong and he didn't see it; the final disastrous series at the Ravens' goal line when the Niners called crummy plays and lost, just lost.

Here's a preliminary conclusion before I get to a give-and-take I had with Harbaugh on Tuesday at his final presser of the season. All Harbaugh's secrecy, his apparent paranoia, his bad manners, his bad sportsmanship, his childish behavior didn't help him win the Super Bowl. His brother, who has much better manners, won.

This is my exchange with Harbaugh on Tuesday:

LC: There's been a lot of discussion nationally about your behavior on the sideline during the Super Bowl. Have you considered altering it in the future?

JH: In terms of what? Etiquette?

LC: Etiquette's a good word. Yeah, acting out, etiquette, that kind of thing. Sure.

JH: We fight to win. If you're asking, 'Does my personal etiquette need to be changed and be more catatonic on the sideline,' I don't anticipate that happening. It's coached and played by emotional people.”

Before I analyze the coach's words, allow me to say Harbaugh's words are as psychologically revealing as the “to be or not to be” soliloquy from “Hamlet,” although Harbaugh is not as deep as Hamlet. Not Harbaugh's fault. Shakespeare doesn't write his lines.

Here's a quiz. Which is the first revealing word Harbaugh uttered?

If you said “etiquette,” you are a good reader. My dictionary defines etiquette this way: “the conduct or procedure required by good breeding or prescribed by authority to be observed in social or official life.”

Etiquette is a good thing. It doesn't just keep us from being embarrassed at the dinner table. It helps human beings get along better, greases the gears of social interaction. Unless you're Harbaugh. For him etiquette is outmoded, quaint, even weak. You could hear that in his tone with me — condescending, dismissive, ironic.

That's his business.

What's his next key word?

“Catatonic.”

This is the defining word — the power word — of the whole spiel. In the Freaking Jim mind, you are either nutso or catatonic. Those are the only two possibilities. You go bat crazy or you sink into nonverbal depression.

How revealing. Excuse me, but there is a distinct middle ground with infinite possibilities. It is called — bear with me here — it is called “normal.”

Many normal people make good coaches. I can tell you for a fact Bill Walsh did not freak out during games, was most definitely not Freaking Bill. He told me a glass window lowered itself between him and the field at game time. He was detached, called plays in a calm, soundless mental room.

Other famous coaches were or are more or less normal, no freaker-outers, and they won Super Bowls: Joe Gibbs, Tom Landry, Bill Belichick, John Harbaugh. David Shaw is always the same — placid and serene no matter what — and he just won the Rose Bowl.

May I add Bruce Bochy, the most calm, normal man you want to meet? He won two World Series.

So, it is not necessary or even helpful for Harbaugh to be Freaking Jim. Maybe his dad can tell him that. His brother sure could.

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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