Despite NFL warning, Harbaugh praises Smith again
Forget “Captain Comeback.” Call Jim Harbaugh “Captain Optimistic” after his comments Sunday about the 49ers, quarterback Alex Smith and the upcoming NFL season. Back in his old stomping grounds, Harbaugh covered a series of topics while being interviewed in the press box at San Diego’s PETCO Park, including the time he spent with legendary 49ers patriarch Bill Walsh before his death.
Harbaugh did not seem at all anxious about the challenges that await him during a relaxed conversation in the broadcaster’s booth of Sunday’s game between the Washington Nationals and San Diego Padres.
Relaxed, except that Harbaugh seemed as determined and focused as ever when the subject turned to his new job and both the complications and uncertainty brought to it by the NFL lockout.
“They’re throwing a myriad of obstacles at us, but that keeps us on our toes,” Harbaugh told veteran broadcaster Dick Enberg. “I choose to be optimistic, and I really think (by) early July there is a chance a deal is done. That’s what I’m planning for. If they can get a deal done in July, we’re scheduled to go to training camp July 28. If we can go to training camp on the 28th, we’ll get the whole exhibition season in.”
With the conversation turned to football, Harbaugh was quick to pump up his 49ers and state the lofty goals he has for the franchise.
“We’ve got a good team, a good group of character guys,” Harbaugh said. “We haven’t been with them all that often, but the time I spent with our guys, they’re hungry to win. We’ve got veteran players that have been there in a city that’s ready for a sixth Lombardi trophy. That will be the goal. That’s what the standard is set at in San Francisco, and we’ll attack it.”
Talking football in San Diego seemed a natural for Harbaugh, who began his rise as a head coach at the University of San Diego, where Harbaugh led the Toreros to two 11-1 seasons and a 29-6 record in his three seasons at the school from 2004-2006. Harbaugh’s last hurrah as a successful NFL quarterback also came in San Diego, where he started 17 games for the Chargers in 1999-2000.
Since the origins of Alex Smith’s rise in football also came in San Diego, it was natural that Enberg also would drop Smith’s name. Smith was raised in the San Diego area and played football at Helix High School in La Mesa during his prep days before moving on to the University of Utah, where Smith was 21-1 as a starter.
Despite receiving a memo from the NFL last month telling him not to talk about 49ers’ free agents – Smith in particular – Harbaugh once again sang the praises of the embattled quarterback, whom Harbaugh already has practically anointed as San Francisco’s starter this season even though Smith isn’t currently under contract with the team.
“He’s a neat, neat guy,” Harbaugh said. “I’m really interested in him and just the character of Alex Smith. He’s been maligned by the hometown fans there, and his family has had to read a lot of that on the Internet. He’s really even been thrown under the bus by his own team more than once. The kind of character of a guy that would want to come back, prove himself with that same football team, that’s rare kind of character. (It) probably falls somewhere in the endangered and extinct range. So we can win with that.”
Harbaugh also feels he can win in San Francisco with the knowledge he’s received from Walsh, one of the greatest 49er of them all. Harbaugh became close to Walsh during the interview process for the Stanford head coaching job in 2006, then spent time with Walsh regularly after taking over the Cardinal’s program, which Harbaugh methodically turned into a winner.
“We got to know each other while I was playing for the (Chicago) Bears, and that relationship continued,” Harbaugh said. “He called me about the Stanford job (in 2006) and encouraged me to throw my hat into the ring. I went through the interview process and he asked 90 percent of the questions, and I had chance to spend nine months with him before he passed away.”
Walsh died at age 75 on July 30, 2007. While he was getting up to speed with the Stanford program, Harbaugh was able to spend considerable time with Walsh, sometimes entire afternoons. There obviously was a lot of talk about football, as Harbaugh now runs a version of the West Coast offensive system that Walsh made famous during his time as head coach at Stanford and head coach with the 49ers.
The same path, by the way, that Harbaugh is following.
“I’d take notes for a while, then I just bought one of those cassette recorders,” Harbaugh said of their conversations. “He’s a brilliant man. And his genius, really, was that he wanted to share what he knew with other people.”