(MCT) — NEW ORLEANS — America looks at Jim Harbaugh and sees one of the NFL’s brightest and most charismatic coaches who wears the same black 49ers sweatshirt and hat every day leading up to Super Bowl XLVII.
Chicago still sees No. 4.
America hears Harbaugh heaping praise on Bo Schembechler and Bill Walsh for their influences, as he did again Thursday. Chicago still wonders how Harbaugh’s hearing survived six seasons with Mike Ditka.
America ponders Harbaugh’s legacy as a 49ers coach. Chicago still remembers a better-than-your-average Bears quarterback.
Chicago remembers a gutsy leader who spent his first seven NFL seasons playing home games at Soldier Field, going 35-30 as a starter from 1987-93 — a player whose first year in a Bears uniform was Walter Payton’s last. At Harbaugh’s first minicamp practice after the Bears selected him in the first round of the 1987 NFL draft, Payton welcomed the quarterback to the huddle by pulling down his shorts.
“I was like, ‘Hey, Walter Payton pulled a prank on me. I feel kind of special,’” Harbaugh later told reporters.
Chicago remembers a player former Bears general manager Bill Tobin called “one of the two most competitive guys I was ever associated with,” in 42 years as an NFL executive. Payton was the other. Harbaugh made that impression immediately by rushing to old Halas Hall from his parents’ home in Michigan on draft day to meet his new coaches, even as chicken pox covered his body. Tobin and Ditka still were busy selecting players, so an antsy Harbaugh killed time playing racquetball. The same enthusiasm drove Harbaugh to travel to Platteville, Wis., for his first training camp without a contract and order agent Leigh Steinberg to get a deal done.
Chicago remembers a competitor who knew only one speed regardless of the score, a trait painfully obvious from Harbaugh’s NFL debut Dec. 14, 1987, according to former Bears center Jay Hilgenberg. In the second half of a 41-0 loss to the 49ers team he now coaches, not every Bear shared the rookie quarterback’s exuberance.
“Jim scrambled to extend the play for 20 seconds and we were dead tired, so somebody said in the huddle, ‘Hey, Jim, we’re getting beat by 30, just throw the ball, OK?’ “ Hilgenberg said Thursday. “There was never a football player in my life who conditioned like Jim Harbaugh. His motor was amazing.”
Chicago remembers the strong-willed quarterback who one memorable night caused Ditka’s motor to overheat. It was Oct. 4, 1992, and Ditka berated Harbaugh after the quarterback changed a deep pass into a shorter one — an audible running back Neal Anderson never heard in the noisy Metrodome. Vikings safety Todd Scott returned the subsequent interception for a touchdown and the Bears eventually blew a 20-0 fourth-quarter lead and lost 21-20. Illustrating the accountability Harbaugh carried into coaching, one former teammate remembered him immediately taking blame.
“Look, guys, this is my fault,” Harbaugh told everyone in the locker room after the game. “We weren’t supposed to audible, and I made the decision. It was the wrong decision.”
It produced the perception still alive 20 years later that Ditka struggled getting along with the quarterback who started 50 regular-season games for Da Coach (28-22).
“You told Jim he couldn’t do something, he’d say he could do it — our relationship was good,” a complimentary Ditka said Thursday. “Except you don’t audible when you’re not supposed to audible. I will never back off that.”
Chicago remembers a quarterback who never backed down from what he believed, a quality Harbaugh’s coaches loved and teammates respected. After an exhibition Aug. 19, 1989, against the Chargers, for example, Harbaugh accused Mike Tomczak of flashing signals across the field to former teammate Jim McMahon, who had been traded to San Diego that day. Exhibition or not, Harbaugh confronted Tomczak. Trust and camaraderie mattered to Harbaugh, who regularly bowled and golfed with his receivers. After one season in which Harbaugh was sacked more than any other NFL quarterback, he bought his offensive linemen gold watches.
Harbaugh could afford it after signing a $13 million contract in 1993 that was the richest in Bears history. When the Bears struggled in Harbaugh’s last year in town, the rich quarterback became an easy target. He got heckled at restaurants and booed mercilessly at home games.
“It was tough on Jim, but he still bought into what we were doing and always took such intensity and confidence in the huddle,” said Florida International University coach Ron Turner, who introduced Harbaugh to the West Coast offense that ‘93 season as the Bears’ offensive coordinator. “Jim found a way. I hated to see him leave.”
Chicago remembers a winner who left his mark as a player for the same reasons San Francisco never will forget him as a coach.