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Kragthorpe: Super Bowl coaches actually a lot alike

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Kurt Kragthorpe

By Kurt Kragthorpe

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Jan 28 2013 11:18AM
Updated May 5, 2013 11:33PM

New Orleans

Following an 11-1 season as the University of San Diego’s football coach, Jim Harbaugh reportedly was in demand for other jobs.

When he addressed his players, Harbaugh told them about the rumors and how he was handling things. "I love you guys," he said, "but I do have a price."

That "unapologetic" nature is reflected in everything Harbaugh says and does, according to Ed Lamb, a former USD assistant who’s now Southern Utah University’s coach. He’s among the Utahns with personal insight into the coaching matchup of brothers in Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVII.

In San Diego, coaching in a lower-tier, nonscholarship program in the Football Championship Subdivision, Jim Harbaugh tackled his job with the same enthusiasm that he subsequently brought to Stanford and the 49ers. "Every day with Jim seemed to be this emotional, adrenaline-filled roller coaster," Lamb said.

Harbaugh was armed with the experience of a player who had gone through just about everything in football, from being a star quarterback at Michigan and an NFL starter who was benched, traded and released at various times.

"So he had no sympathy for guys who couldn’t crack the lineup or needed to be replaced," Lamb said.

And that sense of "unapologetic toughness" is something Lamb had adopted at SUU, while creating a program culture that "we’re all in this together," he said. "That is the fun of it: the connection of hard work and the payoff."

Those rewards are also what Chad Lewis and Justin Ena experienced with John Harbaugh in Philadelphia. Jim’s older brother is a rare case of a NFL head coach whose background was mostly as a special teams coach. He was uniquely qualified for the Baltimore Ravens’ job, because of the way former Eagles coach Andy Reid treated his staff.

Harbaugh was considered an equal to the offensive and defensive coordinators in Philly, addressing all the players in special teams meetings. In that role, Harbaugh commanded the room, said Lewis, a former Eagles tight end and now a BYU athletic administrator.

"I knew he would be a head coach," Lewis said. "I see everything that I saw in my special teams coach. Very few people can stand in front of an entire team and make them accountable and give them a way to attack a problem. ... He knew what guys were not playing to their potential."

And they would hear about it. The popular perception of the brothers is that John is far more reserved. Yet SUU defensive coordinator Justin Ena, Lewis’ former teammate with the Eagles, remembers how John Harbaugh would "berate the 15-year veteran; he’d get after you pretty good … If you didn’t get the job done, he was going to find somebody else."

Ena also respected the way Harbaugh would subsequently re-evaluate his methods, and back off. "He’s a great man, first of all," Ena said. "Coach Harbaugh is one of those coaches who treated everyone equally."

Their own experiences made Lamb, Lewis and Ena appreciate how the Harbaughs could do what they did in December, replacing quarterback Alex Smith with Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco and firing offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and promoting Jim Caldwell in Baltimore.

Those decisions were deemed brilliant when their teams reached the Super Bowl, but the coaches’ father liked the basis for them, even before seeing the results. In his 43 years as a high school and college coach, Jack Harbaugh always asked himself, "What is in the best interest of this football team?"

In a conference call last week, he said of those decisions and the men who made them, "I am proud of both of them, because the team was the focus of what they were trying to do."

kkragthorpe@sltrib.comTwitter: @tribkurt

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