SANTA CLARA — Jim Harbaugh took a window seat alongside his players for San Francisco’s cross-country charter flight home from Philadelphia. Cornerback Carlos Rogers had never seen anything like it: an NFL coach in coach.
Harbaugh gave up his first-class spot to center Jonathan Goodwin.
“He’s a blue-collar guy, blue-collar coach,” Rogers said Monday. “It was so funny, when we were flying back on the plane, he’s back there with us. He gave up his first-class seat to come back with the players and sit in the coach seats with us. He even had someone beside him, someone he was watching video with. When do you see a coach want to give up their first-class seat and come back there and sit with the players throughout a five-hour flight?”
This is Harbaugh’s way. The former NFL quarterback believes in being one of the guys in order to truly gauge the pulse of his team, and the 49ers have certainly bought into his unorthodox, all-hands-on approach.
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“I don’t feel comfortable up in first class. I’m a coach guy,” Harbaugh said. “I watch the tape on the laptop, walk around, talk to the fellas. Watched a little bit of a movie. It was a long trip.”
It’s working well so far in Harbaugh’s first year.
Despite some noticeable flaws, San Francisco is a surprising 3-1 and atop the NFC West, fresh off a stunning 24-23 comeback win over the Eagles that moved the 49ers to 2-0 on the road — Harbaugh’s most significant victory yet in his team’s biggest test thus far.
Strangely enough, the win Sunday came by the same score as Harbaugh’s 2007 Stanford victory at USC that went a long way in turning around the Cardinal program. His Stanford squad traveled to Los Angeles in his first season as 41-point underdogs only to shock the second-ranked Trojans and end their 35-game home winning streak.
And these 49ers are oh so close to being unbeaten at this stage. They blew a late lead in a 27-24 overtime loss to the Cowboys at home Sept. 18.
Can they keep this up? The 2009 team also began 3-1 only to lose the next four and five of six on the way to an 8-8 finish.
“I told them the other day they’re good, and the longer it takes them to figure that out the better off we’ll all be, because when people start thinking they’ve arrived that’s when they stop working and doing the things that got them there,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll keep pretending we have a long way to go, and we do. We don’t have to pretend.”
Next up is a talented Tampa Bay team that will come West in a short week after playing at home Monday night against the Colts.
After Sunday’s thriller against the Eagles, Harbaugh brought out an old familiar chant: “Who’s got it better than us?” he hollered through the celebratory locker room.
“Nobody!” his players screamed.
For Harbaugh, this is just another way he tries to relate to the men he leads and challenges every day.
Sometimes, he will share stories of his modest early upbringing in a two-bedroom house in Iowa City, Iowa, where he shared a room with his big brother, Baltimore Ravens coach John. Harbaugh went back to that house during his scouting days.
“There was just a little saying around the house my dad would always use: ‘Who’s got it better than us?’ We’d all respond, ‘Nobody,’ ” Harbaugh recalled. “We could be driving in the car, just whatever we were doing, he’d say it and we’d respond ‘nobody,’ and we really thought that. We didn’t think there was anybody who could possibly have it better than us. As you get older, you realize people do have it better than you do.”
Still, the message has resonated with a group that embraced the high-profile hiring of Harbaugh — even down to the motivational posters he has hanging around team headquarters — and didn’t complain when he had them stay in Ohio for practice last week as a way to keep their body clocks adjusted to East Coast time.
“I think we’ve changed. We’re a different team,” running back Frank Gore said. “We always knew we had talent in this locker room. Having our coaching staff, that’s a really big part of this organization. They’re doing a great job. We’re just following, believing, and great things are happening. ... As long as we just keep following our leader and keep believing in our leader, we’ll be fine.”
While it’s been far from spectacular through four games, Harbaugh is all about the “process” of building something special.
“I don’t know if the feeling’s any different. It was definitely a step for us, though, for sure. I think actually doing it,” quarterback Alex Smith said. “I think this team has had a great attitude and something about it. And then, to actually do it, though. I’ve been part of games where you get down and then you get close but never actually finish it off like that. Especially against a team of that caliber, a good football team that was at home, in a must-win situation, to pull it out was a big step.”