SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Jim Harbaugh pirouetted in frustration following a personal foul on Dan Skuta. He got hit with his own unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for arguing following a catch by Vernon Davis that went to review before being ruled a touchdown.
And that was just last Sunday.
Harbaugh has been at his emotional best — or, to some, worst — with his cartoon-like faces and quirky sideline antics in leading San Francisco back to the NFC championship game for the third time in as many years since taking over as 49ers head coach in January 2011. On Davis’ TD during Sunday’s 23-10 win at Carolina, Harbaugh ran well onto the field during the play.
“I think Harbaugh gets away with murder myself,” former Seahawks coach and ex-49ers assistant Mike Holmgren said. “If I ever did that it would be a penalty.”
Harbaugh should be as charged up as ever come Sunday, when he faces off once more against the rival Seattle Seahawks in an NFC championship game featuring that familiar coaching sideshow with Pete Carroll. This time, there’s a Super Bowl berth on the line.
But if you ask Harbaugh, “What’s your deal?” is so five years ago. Enough already, he insists, keep it about the players.
“That might have been something four or five years ago,” Harbaugh said. “But, I haven’t seen it as of late. And, it would be as irrelevant now as it would have been then when people made a bigger deal out of it. So, irrelevant, irrelevant.”
Sorry, not this week. There’s no avoiding such chatter. Harbaugh has to expect that infamous phrase to come up often.
It dates back to their college days coaching in the Pac-10 Conference. In 2009, Harbaugh and No. 25 Stanford ran up the score on 11th-ranked USC in a surprising 55-21 rout, even attempting a 2-point conversion with the game way out of reach — prompting Carroll’s infamous “What’s your deal?” when they met afterward at midfield.
Whatever their past or perceived differences, Harbaugh knows what to expect every time a Carroll-coached team takes the field.
The Seahawks ended San Francisco’s two-year reign as NFC West champion.
“It’s hard to get to this position,” Harbaugh said. “Talking about a year of preparation and planning and offseason and training camp and games. And they did it better than anybody did it this entire season. So, a great task, great challenge ahead of us.”
The 49ers have already accomplished plenty this postseason by winning in the bitter cold of Green Bay and at Carolina. Harbaugh is the first coach in the Super Bowl era to reach the NFC championship in each of his first three years.
Place kicker Phil Dawson wanted to be part of the winning vibe after 14 mostly disappointing years with Cleveland. Nose tackle Glenn Dorsey left Kansas City to join a team with Harbaugh at the helm.
Even if Dorsey’s first impressions of the coach left him shaking his head.
“I noticed what everybody else noticed: a coach going crazy on the sideline having fun,” Dorsey recalled. “Always pumped up and always getting his team hyped. He works hard, even now being on the inside seeing him every day and how he goes about doing his job, the enthusiasm that he has and the motivational stuff that he has, the knowledge that he has. He’s a great coach.”
Dawson appreciates how Harbaugh takes chances in the kicking game based on his trust in the veteran — and it certainly didn’t hurt that Dawson converted a franchise-record 27 straight field goals until the streak ended in the regular-season finale at Arizona.
The 50-year-old Harbaugh, a 15-year NFL quarterback himself, regularly moves around the team plane to visit with players about football and life. He shares meals with rookies and veterans alike on occasion in the team cafeteria.
“He’s the kind of coach you want to win for,” Dawson said. “There’s a special satisfaction with having a relationship with the head coach. Being a place kicker, on a lot of teams the head coach never even speaks to the kicker. He’s around, he gets it, he’s been there. He’s sat in those seats. I think it’s probably one of the biggest reasons he’s successful is his ability to communicate with the guys and relate to them on their level and be able to instill whatever it is he’s trying to instill in a way that guys will receive it.”