INDIANAPOLIS – Through a college teammate, Bill Tobin gained close enough access to Bo Schembechler’s Michigan program over the years that drafting Jim Harbaugh was an easy decision.
Tobin respected Harbaugh’s talent, upbringing and grit and selected him in the first round in 1987 (26th overall). Tobin witnessed the quarterback display leadership abilities that he thought were equaled only by Walter Payton, the Hall-of-Famer whom Tobin had drafted in 1975.
Tobin was teamed with Harbaugh from 1987-97 with Chicago and Indianapolis, and he is the guest of Harbaugh this Sunday at Super Bowl XLVII.
Though associated with many players throughout his career, Tobin feels a kinship deep enough that Harbaugh almost seems to be a surrogate son.
“To a degree, absolutely,” said Tobin. “We both took some heat, but we’ve always come out as stronger men.”
Tobin observed Harbaugh pass through a 14-year playing career without ever taking his eye off the ball. Harbaugh wanted to play as long as possible, then coach.
Harbaugh was born into a football upbringing with his father, Jack, being a football lifer. He played under illustrious coaches in key years of his maturation, and Harbaugh is executing his
blueprint Sunday with a world championship on the line.
“He learned from some of the very best in Bo Schembechler, his father, Mike Ditka, Ted Marchibroda and Lindy Infante,” said Tobin. “Jim had great respect for Lindy and his ability to design a game plan. All of his training is coming to pass, and it’s helping him now.
“I see influence from Schembechler and the Michigan operation in Jim’s game plans weekly. He’s not afraid to think outside the box in terms of running formations and defensive players being on the offensive side of the ball, like we did with the Fridge (William Perry) in Chicago. He has formations, play-actions and he’s not afraid to use play-action passes down close to the goal-line on first down in a heavy formation. He’s hard to think with in how he’s going to attack you. He has a lot of Lindy’s influence in him in setting up the passing game.”
Infante was Harbaugh’s offensive coordinator with the Colts in 1995, then was his head coach for the next two seasons. A brilliant tactician, Infante sees how shrewdly Harbaugh has directed the Niners.
“He definitely looks to me like he picks things that he knows will work with the quarterback they have. That’s important,” said Infante. “It really doesn’t matter what the coach knows come game day. It matters what the player knows. As coaches, we don’t go out there and play.
“He’s done a wonderful job. When he made the quarterback change, everybody kind of thought he was a little bit crazy. It turns out he knew more than 99 percent of the rest of us.”
Tobin has seen sideline histrionics in his days. When he sees it from Harbaugh, Tobin finds it in character.
“(The enthusiasm) reminds me of his playing days,” said Tobin. “It’s all genuine. It’s all sincere. It’s not phoniness, which you see on some sidelines. It’s all from the heart. He’s consistent.”
History is dotted with former NFL quarterbacks who became head coaches – Bart Starr, Sammy Baugh, Tom Flores, Norm Van Brocklin, Otto Graham. With proper respect to all, Tobin sees Harbaugh winding up at the head of that pack as a field leader.
“I’ll tell you what he’s going to be. He’s going to be the most successful ex-NFL quarterback head coach of all-time,” said Tobin. “You can go back and look at the other quarterbacks who attempted to be head coaches and after last year, Jim was out front. After this year, he’s going to be so far ahead of them that he’ll end up as the best ex-NFL quarterback head coach of all-time.”
Infante was in coaching for 29 years, 17 in the professional ranks and the final two of his 10 NFL seasons were as the Colts’ head coach. Like Tobin, he feels Harbaugh would be a “player’s” coach, and he is impressed with how Harbaugh has prospered.
“You really don’t know at the time how a guy will respond as a head coach when he has to make all those personnel decisions and the, ‘What are you going to run,’ type things,” said Infante. “Building a game plan and things of that nature are very hard to do. They’re very time consuming, a lot of hours involved. He’s taken advantage of it and has done well.”
Tobin will be in the Superdome on Sunday, hoping Harbaugh can win a title on the same playing field where Tobin’s Bears won Super Bowl XX. He will burst with pride in watching his former player. That pride is felt because he knows Harbaugh’s character spans well past being a coach.
“Win or lose, he’s going to be the same guy. He’s not going to change. He’s going to look forward to next year, win or lose,” said Tobin. “I appreciate where he is now, and I see him being successful for many years to come. He’s so solid in his beliefs and in his character and dependability.
“It’s got to be immense pride (for his parents) to have children in sports and to have them successful, it’s super unique. There’s no question about that. I wish all NFL players would act the way the Harbaugh family acts.”