[Editor’s note: The recent dust-up between Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher, two of college football’s most prominent coaches, made me wish that something similar would happen among NFL coaches. Eleven years ago, it sort of did. After a regular-season game between the 49ers and Lions, San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh and Detroit coach Jim Schwartz had an interaction that became a full-blown brouhaha. Coincidentally, the Schartz vs. Harbaugh incident became one of the 100-plus chapters in Playmakers. So, with the express written consent of the fine folks at Hachette, I’ve copied and pasted the chapter. If you like what you see, you can see more that you’ll like when you buy Playmakers.]
IN THE EARLY portions of the past decade, John and Jim Harbaugh had become two of the most accomplished coaches in the NFL. Both have reputations for being fiercely intense and competitive. In 2011, that intensity and competition led one of them to cause a minor melee in Michigan.
Those who know both men—Jim coached the 49ers from 2011 through 2014, and John has coached the Ravens since 2008—claim that they possess equal fire but that John usually does a better job of keeping it under wraps (except, for example, when the lights went out in the second half of Super Bowl XLVII, which pitted brothers against each other for the first time ever in the league’s championship game). Jim, on the other hand, typically wears his heart, mind, ego, and temper on his sleeve.
It came to a head in Jim’s sixth game as coach of the 49ers. And it had its roots in an offseason dinner with the coach of his opponent that day. At the NFL’s annual meeting in March, not long after a lockout that would wipe out the offseason had commenced, Lions coach Jim Schwartz lectured Jim Harbaugh on the challenges of being competitive in his first season on the job given the lack of opportunities to practice from April into June.
“We were having dinner the other night, and Jim Schwartz told [Jim] basically there’s no way you’re going to be able to get it done [if the lockout lasts into the summer],” John Harbaugh said at the time. “[Schwartz] told him there’s no way you’re going to be able to accomplish what you need to accomplish in two weeks if this thing lasts a while. Jim [Harbaugh] just kind of bit his tongue, which is what you’ve got to do in this situation. Because there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Jim Harbaugh had a chance to do something about it when the 49ers visited the Lions on October 16, 2011. Detroit had started 5–0 for the first time since 1956. The 49ers unexpectedly had won four of five games to start the year but were 4.5-point underdogs.
Regardless of whether Jim Harbaugh still had the offseason condescension from Schwartz in mind (and surely Harbaugh did), another incident laid the foundation for what was eventually to come. After Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford connected with tight end Brandon Pettigrew on a 16-yard touchdown pass, Jim Harbaugh threw the red challenge flag. That year, however, the league had passed a rule making all scoring plays automatically reviewable. Harbaugh drew a 15-yard penalty for challenging a play that coaches no longer could challenge. On the other sideline, Schwartz taunted Harbaugh, strutting and preening and shouting “Know the rules” at Harbaugh, whose expression suggested that he was more dumbfounded by the development than disrespected by Schwartz.
The touchdown plus the extra point had given the Lions a 10–0 lead. The 49ers, however, managed to erase the deficit, to take the lead, and to hold the lead, winning the game 25–19 and dropping Detroit to 5–1.
That was when things became interesting. Harbaugh got excited. The TV copy shows him pulling up his shirt to reveal a ghostly white midsection. But Harbaugh wasn’t trying to show off his incipient dad bod; the gesture came from a gimmick Harbaugh had hatched to inspire a blue-collar work ethic in his players.
After the initial rosters for the season had become set, Harbaugh had work shirts made for all players and coaches. Dark blue, short sleeved, with a name plate stitched over a pocket. Harbaugh had explained that the 49ers would be a rough-and-tough team that earned each day’s pay. And, like blue-collar workers, they’d come home, kiss the wife and kids, grab a beer, sit in a favorite chair, untuck the work shirt, and watch TV. Harbaugh, in his excitement, untucked his shirt as a nod to the hard day of work that had led to an upset win in Detroit.
The excitement continued into a hard postgame handshake with Schwartz, followed by a slap on Schwartz’s back. Schwartz called out to Harbaugh, Harbaugh said something back to Schwartz, and Schwartz then followed Harbaugh, chasing him in order to confront him (or, at a minimum, to create the impression that he was trying to confront Harbaugh).
Officials and players and photographers and even 49ers PR director Bob Lange (in full suit and tie) scurried to keep Schwartz from getting too close to Harbaugh. The team congregated at the lone tunnel to the locker rooms, and cooler heads eventually prevailed.
Not everyone wanted things to quiet down so easily. When 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman realized what was about to happen, a team official cautioned him, “Be smart.” So Bowman put his helmet on and buckled his chinstrap before running to the middle of the action.
Ultimately, there was not much action. The incident, however, is one of the biggest examples from the past twenty years of the manner in which competitive drive mixed with toughness, real or contrived, can spill beyond the players to the coaches, causing one to be perhaps a little too exuberant and forcing the other to try (or at least to seem to try) to confront his foe with physical force.
For Schwartz, it was good that his effort was unsuccessful, or at least inauthentic. Harbaugh, a first-round draft pick of the Bears and long-time NFL quarterback, likely would have made quick work of Schwartz, a Division III linebacker at Georgetown who never played a down of football beyond college.
[This article is an from Playmakers: How the NFL Really Works (And Doesn’t) by Mike Florio © 2022. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.]