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Sophisticated Simple — The Secret of Jim Harbaugh’s Success?

2011 November 23
by Brian Goff

Back in October, Yahoo! Sports’ Michael Silver explored the factors behind the turnaround of the San Francisco 49ers in  “Harbaugh’s Formula of Success Hard to Pin Down.“  Standing at 4-1 when this piece appeared, the Niners have climbed to 9-1 now with a strong chance of reaching 13-3 or better given their remaining schedule.  I’m not ready to crown Harbaugh an NFL coaching prodigy — improving a team and staying on top are two different things, although playing in the NFC West will help.

Nonetheless, Harbaugh’s turnaround of Stanford and now SF speaks to some meaningful underlying skills.  Silver  quotes former 49ers defensive back and current radio analyst, Eric Davis, in saying

“Jim Harbaugh is better at being Mike Singletary than Mike Singletary.” Davis laid out his premise, and it made a ton of sense: Singletary’s mantra was that his team would develop a power running attack and play ball-control football, minimize mistakes and keep games close with a tough, bend-but-don’t break defense. It sounded good, in theory. Harbaugh and his assistants, in 10 short weeks, have put it into practice.”

Refreshingly, Silver does not settle for a “he grits his teeth harder” story.  There are hints of this  — that seems to be what Trent Dilfer thinks, “takes guys who think they are tough and makes them really tough.”  Former NFL players love to spout this stuff in spite of case after case where “tough guy” coaches lose … see Mike Singletary post and John Madden’s statements. Silver digs deeper around the locker room, proposing six key characteristics:

1) keeps it simple, 2) plays to his QB’s strengths, 3) excels at creating match-up problems, 4) hires good assistants, 5) sticks to his plan, and 6) is down to earth.

In my research for From the Ballfield to the Boardroom, #2 stands out.   Orioles manager Earl Weaver preached the sermon — “I don’t focus on what my players can’t do well, I try to utilize what they do well.”  That’s a great lesson for many coaches.  In large team sports like football, good assistants (#4) are like good players, you can’t succeed without them — way too much going on for one guy to handle.

Numbers 1 and 3 lay out a paradox encased in my title, “Sophisticated Simple.”  A critical tradeoff  exists between keeping things simple enough to be “doable” (even if a team or two can go ultra-sophisticated, it doesn’t mean it can by copied everywhere) and, yet, sophisticated enough to give players a chance.  Strategy matters in the NFL.  It’s not all about just lining up and knocking a guy standing right in front of you down.  Harbaugh’s own playing career took a leap forward when his straight-ahead, no frills skills matched with the sophistication of Lindy Infante (Coordinator) and Ted Marchibroda (Head Coach) in Indianapolis.   Harbaugh went from a career mid-70s passer rating in his Chicago days to an upper 80s average during the link with Infante, peaking at a league-leading 100.7 rating in 1995.

I’m not sold on the “sticking to the plan.”  Successful coaches don’t bail on a plan at the first sign of difficulty, but flexibility is a common trait among coaches with long histories of success.  Doing things just one way will eventually fail.

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