There are moments when Jim Harbaugh gets the Look. His brows furrow, his eyes glaze, and a smile creeps slowly across his face. When his eyes meet yours, it's as if he is looking through you, not at you—such as when he's discussing his jump to the 49ers this year after four seasons at Stanford.
"I love coaching these guys—these pro guys, these mighty men, the guys that are the best at what they do," he says, enthusiasm and intensity mounting. "Growing up, from my childhood on, my heroes have always been uncommon men, and these are uncommon men. I love coaching them, coaching against them, just seeing them on the field competing. It's been great. It's been exciting."
It also figures to be challenging. The 49ers have not had a winning season since 2002. They lack a proven quarterback and an established pass rusher—the most important positions on each side of the ball.
Yet when asked why 2011 will be a breakthrough season, veteran players sound as if they're reading from a script. The first thing out of their mouths is: Coach Harbaugh.
"One of the things that jumped out at me right away about him and his staff was just the pure enthusiasm for football," says quarterback Alex Smith. "Not to say that the other staffs didn't have it, but it's just infectious with Coach Harbaugh and his staff."
"It just feels right, like it's meant to be," says tight end Vernon Davis. "He has great energy. You can just feel it. I think he's a surprise gift for us, and I think it's going to work just right."
Harbaugh was in the middle of everything in training camp, including a serious yet playful argument with defensive coordinator Vic Fangio during a two-minute drill. The veteran assistant did not like that his unit was called for being offside; Fangio argued in colorful language that the offensive tackle had moved first.
Harbaugh calmly made his point, gave the offense an extra five yards, then watched Smith find Davis on a seam route for a touchdown on the next play.
If the season goes that smoothly, the 49ers could be in for big improvement. It will take more than the Harbaugh touch, however, to lift the dark cloud that has been hovering over the franchise for nearly a decade. The offensive line was wildly inconsistent in the preseason (11 sacks through three games); running back Frank Gore wanted a new contract and might seek a trade if the team doesn't satisfy him before the season opener; wide receiver Michael Crabtree is not expected to return from a left foot injury until at least the start of the season; and new wideout Braylon Edwards was a late acquisition.
Harbaugh isn't one to get into specifics about how the team will address these issues. He often speaks in generalities when pressed for details. His favorite phrase is "working through something" when asked why a player missed practice. He knows reporters want more, but that's the fighter in Harbaugh. He is not a man who'll be intimidated. Once during his 14 years as an NFL quarterback, he went after teammate Mike Dumas in the tunnel when Dumas was critical of Harbaugh's play in a loss. (Teammates intervened before the situation escalated.)