Jim Harbaugh: Everything but the handshake

Oct 18, 2011, 9:09 AM | Updated: 11:04 am

I played in the NFL at the same time as Jim Harbaugh, although his career both preceded and surpassed mine. The first time I actually met him was in February of 2007 at a get-together for Seattle area Stanford alums.

Harbaugh had just been hired as the head football coach at Stanford in December of ’06 and was in town to both recruit and to make his dog-and-pony show pitch for some of the wealthy alums in town. The room was filled with successful Stanford graduates that day. I was there too.

The Stanford people that I’ve met at these functions in Seattle over the years have consistently been the most gracious, humble and friendly people I’ve met. Other than that, the most notable common denominator is that they want to win football games.

I’m not sure if Harbaugh had any preconceived notions about his crowd that day, but it was clear to me that he was oblivious to that. The first thing out of his mouth that day was, “What do you guys think about naming Stanford Stadium ‘The House of Pain’?”

Yes, it was an odd thing to say but it actually went over well. I remember thinking that he was a little socially awkward, but he seemed too focused to care about anything other than improving the program and winning football games at Stanford.

Apparently this awkwardness pops up now and again and Sunday’s post-game handshake between Harbaugh and Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz was exhibit A. Sandwiched between his failed rally to re-name Stanford stadium and the Schwartz “throw down,” Harbaugh also did this:

• Intimated that Pete Carroll was going to leave USC for the NFL in March of ’07;

• Had a post-game encounter with Carroll in 2009 that resulted in the famous “What’s your deal?” incident. As in, “What’s your deal?” “What’s your deal?” “No, I asked you first … WHAT’S YOUR DEAL?”

His hand grab and overzealous slap of Schwartz’s back was even worse and there seems to be a “fiery” pattern here. NFC West blogger Mike Sando reminds us that he was this way as a player too.

Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Jim Harbaugh is one heck of a coach and the rest of the NFL should be more concerned about his coaching ability than his lack of social grace. Just as Harbaugh did at Stanford, he has his 49ers team playing and playing well.

The 49ers are much more than their 5-1 record indicates. This is a team that is 3-0 on the road. Those three wins came against the Cincinnati Bengals, Philadelphia Eagles and Detroit Lions. All three wins were in the Eastern time zone and in the early 10 a.m. PST slot.

The Bengals are 4-2, in a three-way tie in the toughest division in football, and have the No. 2 defense in the league. The “Dream Team” Eagles have been a bit of a disappointment, but the Niners overcame a 23-3 third quarter deficit to win that game 24-23. Detroit was the hottest team in the NFL before the Harbaugh-led 49ers took them down 25-19.

But their most impressive win was at home in Week 5 when they destroyed the NFC South division leading Tampa Bay Buccaneers 48-3. It’s not often you see a team win by that margin in the NFL outside of the Green Bay Packers.

The 49ers have the fifth-leading rusher in the league in Frank Gore. Rookie first round draft choice Aldon Smith is fifth in the league with 5.5 sacks and recorded a key safety in Sunday’s win over the Lions. The Niners’ roster is peppered with talented players like four-time pro bowl linebacker Patrick Willis, tight end Vernon Davis and defensive line iron man Justin Smith.

But most importantly, the missing link in San Francisco’s success has been quarterback play and Harbaugh finally has Alex Smith looking like a winner. Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft, is not lighting up the scoreboard like Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, but he’s playing good football. He’s the eighth-ranked quarterback with a 95.2 quarterback rating and has thrown only two interceptions.

It’s clear to me that Harbaugh has already put his winning stamp on Smith and the 49ers and did so in short order since his January hiring.

Because Jim Harbaugh turned Stanford into a winning football program, I have to love him. There’s no denying that he is an excellent football coach. Jim Schwartz’s actions were despicable as well, but there’s something about the way Harbaugh behaved that made me mad. Using a handshake – a universally friendly gesture – to convey a nasty and aggressive message is very dishonest.

Here’s what I would say to Jim Harbaugh: You have had success in everything you’ve done and at this pace, you’ll soon be considered one of the premier coaches in the NFL. Win or lose, act like you’ve been there before when it’s time to shake hands after the game. You can act silly once you’re in the locker room.

Besides, you better get that fixed before you “accidentally” back-slap Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Munchak (all-pro and NFL Hall of Fame offensive guard), Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin or Jacksonville Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio. Those guys will do more than throw a Jim Schwartz-like temper-tantrum. One of them will drop you right then and there!

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Jim Harbaugh: Everything but the handshake