More than 20 years before he was the fiery coach who paces the San Francisco 49ers sideline with a Sharpie dangling around his neck, Jim Harbaugh was a fiery player who constantly challenged his teammates during games. Harbaugh would curse and scream, both at teammates and opponents. Every play was life-or-death, and every game was as important to Harbaugh as the one he’ll try to win this weekend.
But those weren’t football games that got him so excited back then; it was pickup basketball.
From 1987 through ‘93, when Harbaugh was a quarterback for the Chicago Bears, he and his teammates would play basketball games every Tuesday at a Lake Forest gym close to Halas Hall. With all of the players being accomplished and aggressive athletes, not to mention enormous, the games got rough. And no Bear embraced the competition more than Harbaugh.
“I always felt he was very competitive, but playing basketball against him just showed me how much he hated to lose,” said Peter Tom Willis, a 6-foot-2 backup quarterback for the Bears from 1990 to 1993. “We’d cover each other a lot, and I can tell you, he was competitive to the end on the court.”
Neal Anderson, a Bears running back from 1986 to 1993, remembered the same: “There was a lot of bumping, a lot of pushing down low,” he said. “We had to stop playing sometimes because it was getting so physical. Jim didn’t have the most talent on the basketball court, but he always gave the most effort. He would never back down.”
Harbaugh showed that same level of competitiveness on the field as a fearless, whatever-it-takes quarterback, and is showing it still as a hyperactive, in-your-face coach. After playing 14 years in the league, he made the career move all his teammates expected, following in his father Jack’s and older brother John’s footsteps and joining the coaching ranks. Harbaugh made just three stops before becoming the head coach of the 49ers prior to the 2011 season. In the two years since he took over, the Niners have won 75 percent of their games, and are now just a victory away from their first Lombardi Trophy in 18 years.
As a quarterback, Harbaugh started 65 games for the Bears, throwing for more than 11,500 yards, and leading the team to a pair of playoff appearances. Pretty impressive stats for anyone, but especially so given how tough coach Mike Ditka was on his quarterback. Harbaugh’s style was far from orthodox, known more for risky throws and mad third-down scrambles than for dropping back and throwing from the pocket. While nobody ever confused him for John Elway, nobody accused Harbaugh of going half-speed, either. When asked to describe his play, former teammates called the quarterback “a hard worker,” “super competitive,” and “a natural leader.”
“His attitude rubbed off on people, on all of us,” said Willis, Harbaugh’s occasional replacement under center. “He would just fight out there, looking for a way to get it done and get a win. It wasn’t the prettiest thing in the world.”
Harbaugh’s best years as a professional quarterback came in Indianapolis after leaving the Bears. He made his only Pro Bowl appearance in 1995, the same year he led the Colts to the AFC Championship game. He moved on from Indy after they drafted Peyton Manning in the spring of ’98, playing with the Ravens for a year and the Chargers for two before retirement. Despite a career that included several stops, playing for Ditka in Chicago maybe have had the greatest lasting effect on his approach to the game.
Ditka was an aggressive, offensive-minded coach who wasn’t afraid to try new things—like using defensive lineman William Perry at running back. When he became a head coach with the 49ers, Harbaugh took control of their offense and tried new things, too, such as running the unconventional “Pistol” offense, in which the quarterback lines up just four yards behind the center, allowing him more freedom to run or throw depending on the defensive scheme.
Ditka’s Bears never had great quarterbacks, but they won with a strong running game and a physical defense, much like the 49ers have done this year. Harbaugh also learned in Chicago the value of having a talented backup quarterback. Under Ditka, Harbaugh was always looking over his shoulder, afraid that he might be replaced at any moment if his performance slipped. This season, even though the Niners were 6-2-1 under quarterback Alex Smith, Harbaugh made the switch to backup Colin Kaepernick. The move sparked San Francisco’s run to the Super Bowl.
“Jim knew he was going to go into coaching when his career was over, because football has always been a part of his lifestyle,” Anderson said. “He was the right captain to take over the ship with the 49ers, and I think playing with the Bears had a lot to do with why he was so ready.”
“Every experience he’s had, from playing in Chicago, but also going all the way back to Pee-Wee football, has helped Jim become the coach he is today,” said Wendell Davis, a Bears wide receiver from 1988-93.
Nearly two decades have gone by since the daring throws into coverage, the heart-skipping first-down runs, and the black-and-blue pickup basketball games. Willis is working at a commercial metals company. Anderson lives in Florida and spends his time working with kids in his community. Davis is the wide receivers coach for Columbia University in New York City. Harbaugh, at 49 years of age, is doing what all his Bears teammates expected—preparing for the Super Bowl as a head coach.
“I’m not surprised at all to where Jim has gotten,” Davis said. “I know how much he’s always wanted to win. It didn’t matter if it was football, or a game of marbles in the locker room, or pickup basketball.”