INDIANAPOLIS – Bill Tobin got an earful in Chicago in 1987 when he drafted a quarterback in the first round from a “running” school.
A few years later and at a lower decibel level in a smaller market, Tobin got it again when he brought Jim Harbaugh to Indianapolis.
Now, Harbaugh is hosting his former general manager in New Orleans when San Francisco meets Baltimore in Super Bowl XLVII.
“I’m very proud of what he has done. I’m proud of what he did in Indianapolis. He solidified us,” said Tobin. “I took some heat from the national media when I brought him to Indianapolis. I remember one guy saying, ‘Jim Harbaugh, quarterback? Give me a break.’ Two years later, he was player of the year in the AFC.
“I’m very happy he’s where he is now. I said many times, ‘I never want to go to another Super Bowl again, unless we’re in it.’ Now, I do. I’m going to be his guest.”
Tobin was a man of conviction who knew what he was getting in Harbaugh. Tobin had great eyeballs into the Michigan program while Harbaugh was there, and he wanted Harbaugh on hand with the Bears because of possible health and contract concerns with Jim McMahon.
“People weren’t as tuned in to Jim’s accomplishments or for his potential in the NFL as I was,” said Tobin. “Jim had great training at Michigan. They won about 90 percent of their games. Jim was a real competitor, a real leader. He was a little ornery sometimes (laughs), but a great teammate. He was tough as nails, and teammates saw that. He got the job done.”
In the city of the big shoulders, Tobin found Harbaugh up to the task, leading at a level on par with his greatest draft pick.
“Leadership, Jim was off the charts as far as winning and competing,” said Tobin. “I’ve said this more than once, the two best competitors I’ve ever been around were Walter Payton and Jim Harbaugh. He’s continued that as a coach.”
Harbaugh was one of the most media-savvy Colts players, yet his ambitions never wavered from his upbringing. Reared by a football lifer, Jack Harbaugh, Jim only wanted to follow his hero.
“He never hid his ambitions,” said Tobin. “He wanted to play as long as he could, and then he wanted to coach. That’s exactly the way his life has developed.”
When Tobin joined the Colts in 1994, he kept some components in place like Head Coach Ted Marchibroda. Other building blocks were imported, one being Harbaugh.
“He had an excellent career in Chicago, and no one in Indianapolis knew what they were getting,” said Tobin. “Jim was not alone in being a competitor in Indianapolis, but he was one of the best. We had a three-year run from 1995 to 1997 where we beat the defending Super Bowl champions (San Francisco, Dallas, Green Bay). He was a battler, a leader.”
Harbaugh split starting assignments with Don Majkowski in 1994, then beat out Craig Erickson, whom the club spent a first-round pick to acquire, in 1995. Harbaugh led the club to within a step of the Super Bowl that year, then helped Indianapolis return to the playoffs in 1996 under Lindy Infante.
The Colts were derailed in 1997, starting slowly and earning a 3-13 record. The team never hit a stride and injuries impacted prospects harshly. A new era would start in 1998, but Tobin remembers how gutty Harbaugh was in the finale at Minnesota.
It was a game where he was battered and knocked from action. Tobin knows the heart on display that day is what San Francisco players see now.
“Jim took a beating at Minnesota in 1997 and fought as long as he could. I saw him after the game on the training table all beat up. He gave all he had,” said Tobin. “Jim does things by example. He doesn’t ever ask anyone do things he won’t do or hasn’t done. The players understand that. They identify with him and he identifies with them. He practices what he preaches.
“Jim doesn’t have a phony bone in his body. He has the ability to rise to the occasion. He’s one of the two best competitors I’ve ever been around in my life.”