January 7th proved to be a monumental day for the San Francisco 49ers organization. No, it has nothing to do with the great Joe Montana, or the elusive Steve Young. Not even the "GOAT," Jerry Rice.
That fateful day instead belongs to a former NFL quarterback by the name of Jim Harbaugh. January 7th, 2011, was the day he was introduced to the world as the next head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.
His success speaks for itself. Two straight 10+-win seasons, a divisional title (with another likely coming) and a NFC Conference Championship appearance.
Not to mention the added attention and charisma he has infused within this organization. He was a great hire by general manager Trent Baalke that looks better and better as the years pass.
However, as much as many refuse to admit it, the hiring of Harbaugh wasn't all lollipops and dandelions.
Many questioned if Harbaugh could succeed at the pro level. Remember, college head coaches didn't have great track records when it came to making the transition from the college ranks to the pros.
Harbaugh was no exception.
He also had the added pressure of finding a franchise quarterback and revitalizing a stagnant and pathetic offense.
In addition, fans were tired of the vanilla offenses of years past and wanted the return of the West Coast offense, a system that many believe should be forever synonymous with the 49ers.
The criticisms and pressure continued to mount, but if any man could overcome all these obstacles it was Harbaugh.
He didn't rewrite the record books or win a championship, nor will he ever join the Hall of Fame as a player, but he was a competitor, and a hard-nosed one at that.
It was only natural that at the conclusion of his career, he would end up coaching. However, unlike his draft status as a first-round pick, this wouldn't be so easy.
Harbaugh tore through Division I-AA at the University of San Diego before getting an unlikely shot at Stanford.
Even then, there was the pressure of making the transition from small-college ball to the Pac-10. Could Harbaugh compete with the Pete Carrolls and Jeff Tedfords of the world?
After a rough start, Harbaugh completely turned around a dormant Stanford program that had once tuned out great NFL players such as John Elway and James Lofton.
Harbaugh was also a major influence in molding quarterback Andrew Luck, who has gone on to start for the Indianapolis Colts.
He was the talk of college football, but Harbaugh wanted more. His competitive drive wouldn't allow him to settle for success at the college level.
No, Harbaugh wanted to make his mark in the big-boy league. The NFL was calling, but who among the coach-needy teams would take the plunge?
Harbaugh dabbled a bit with the dysfunctional Miami Dolphins at first, but ultimately decided to stay close to home and sign a deal with the San Francisco 49ers.
While the 49ers were dysfunctional and inept in their own right, at least new management was present. General manager Trent Baalke, who started first as a temp for former GM Scot McCloughan, was a breath of fresh air.
McCloughan wasn't a bad hire. He drafted many of the 49ers' current stars, but Baalke brought stability. Also, it didn't hurt that Baalke and Harbaugh had a previous relationship.
There was finally some optimism and excitement in the Bay Area, but questions still remained about Harbaugh's ability to mold a quarterback. Did he truly influence Luck or was it the other way around?
Who could blame the 49ers' faithful for doubting Harbaugh or even Baalke? They have endured awful quarterback play for almost a decade, and suddenly one man was going to change their fortunes?
This was during a time when Harbaugh was openly advocating for the return of former first-round bust, quarterback Alex Smith.
The lockout played a part in this, but still, Smith? This is the same guy who was benched in favor of J.T. O'Sullivan. Exactly, who? How about Troy Smith?
At that point, it appeared that Alex Smith, for practical purposes, was done in San Francisco and possibly the league altogether. However, despite the criticism, Harbaugh trusted that Smith was the guy for this team.
The 49ers weren't blowing smoke, as they passed on drafting a quarterback in the first round, and instead selected Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft.
Smith finally had the reins. Despite the talks of fair competition, this was Smith's job to lose.
Smith was finally playing up to his potential and it was all because of Harbaugh. However, it wasn't just Smith.
The 49ers also had several high first-round draft picks, and under Harbaugh, they were finally developing.
Michael Crabtree? Anthony Davis? NaVorro Bowman? Alex Boone? With the exception of Bowman, who was coming on late in 2010 NFL season, these players had been non-factors.
There was always talent on this 49ers team, but it lacked direction. Harbaugh was the light at the end of tunnel.
The organization needed a leader who was not only vocal, but knew the X-and-O's of the game (ahem, Mike Singletary). How about a coherent offense and a likable head coach (looking at you, Mike Nolan)?
Harbaugh was the whole package and more.
As the 2011 NFL season progressed, 49ers fans saw something special developing under the leadership of Harbaugh.
It just wasn't the success that excited fans, but also the solidity and stability that hadn't been seen since coach Steve Mariucci was running the show.
The pressure of rejuvenating a franchise like the 49ers was minimal compared to what Harbaugh has had to face in his career, both as a college coach and NFL quarterback.
He brought a blue-collar approach to a organization that desperately needed an identity.
Look, Harbaugh will never be Bill Walsh. Yes, his genius and creativity remind us so much of the great Walsh, but they coached in different eras.
However, Harbaugh will etch his name in NFL history, not as a player, but as a great head coach.
Every coach will be judged on merit (wins/losses), but Harbaugh will be remembered for much more. He revitalized a once-proud franchise.
The 49ers may not win a championship in the coming years, but at least this franchise is back in the discussion, a prospect that seemed unlikely just a few years ago.
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