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March 4, 2014
Just win, baby: The prism through which Jim Harbaugh's words must be filtered

smith-harbaugh.jpg

Monday wasn't the first time Jim Harbaugh - with gusto - felt compelled to set the record straight. For those just catching up, in an interview with Sports Illustrated Harbaugh dumped a barrel of ice water on the notion that: A.) He is gunning for a big contract. B.) He is unhappy with with general manager Trent Baalke and C.) He will leave the 49ers before the remaining two years of his contract expire.

In other words: Everything is great. How are you?

It was similar to Harbaugh's out-of-the-blue denial in May 2012 that the 49ers ever had an interest in signing Peyton Manning. The 49ers and Manning? Harbaugh made it sound like the most insane idea he had ever come across.

"It's an erroneous perception that we were flirting with Peyton Manning," Harbaugh said nearly two and half months after Manning signed with Denver. "I keep hearing that over and over again. It's silly, and it's untrue. It's phony."

Harbaugh insisted the 49ers were committed to Alex Smith at quarterback. Always were.

Later that year, Harbaugh made an unscheduled stop at the podium to deride, chide and otherwise shake his finger at reporters who had been critical of first-round draft pick A.J. Jenkins.

"I'll go on record: A.J. is going to be an outstanding football player," a fired-up Harbaugh said. ". ... There are these so-called experts who are making these comments, and there's going to be an I-told-you-so. I foresee that happening."

It turns out the 49ers weren't committed to Smith (traded to the Chiefs) and that Jenkins (traded to the Chiefs) was not outstanding.

Here's the common thread in both examples and in the most recent one: Harbaugh will say anything to keep his team strong. Winning comes above all else. And if you have to massage the truth here and there to keep your quarterback happy, to keep the locker room tight or to motivate a first-round pick who gets knocked to the ground in non-contact practices, you do it.

"As Mr. Al Davis said so profoundly, 'Just Win Baby,'" Harbaugh said after beating Carolina in January. The quote applies in this case, too.

Winning also is what makes Harbaugh popular in the locker room. Do you think veterans like Justin Smith and Frank Gore still love the 'who's got it better than us?' chant after three years? What they love is the fact that Harbaugh has brought them - a couple of players who had been on losing teams for most of their careers -- to within a hair's breadth to the Super Bowl in two of the three years he's been in town and nearly landed a title in the other.

That's why Anquan Boldin on Monday said he laughed when he read about a rift between Harbaugh and his players. "I heard of no griping in the locker room when it comes to coach Harbaugh," he said. "Like I said, he's a guy that wants to win. Everybody in the locker room wants to do the same thing."

Former 49ers Brian Jennings said the same thing this morning on KNBR radio: "There's no one inside the building who has more of a single focus than Jim Harbaugh," he said. That single focus: winning.

It's also the reason why, while not believing everything that comes out of Jim Harbaugh's mouth, I believe his central point from his SI interview: He does not want to leave the 49ers. His best chance of winning a Super Bowl title, after all, isn't in Cleveland, Miami or Dallas. It's here.

And finally it's the reason why Baalke will tolerate all the confrontations with Harbaugh and what will motivate Jed York to try to bridge the contract impasse with his head coach. Harbaugh knows quarterbacks, he knows how to motivate and, most of all, he knows how to win.

-- Matt Barrows



MATTHEW BARROWS

Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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