The Handshake: Don’t Blame 49ers Coach Jim Harbaugh for Liking to Win

| by Alex Groberman

Overly-enthusiastic. Too zealous. Really passionate. Annoying. Meathead.

Those are just five of about a million terms used by fans and pundits alike to describe San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh in the wake of “The Handshake.” You know, the nonsensical circus side show that emerged after an overly-exuberant Harbaugh, apparently, incorrectly shook Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz’s hand following Sunday’s game.

Coming into the outing with a surprisingly impressive 4-1 mark, first-year head coach Harbaugh -- fresh off his stint with Stanford -- wanted to make a statement against the undefeated Lions. He wanted to silence the critics that insisted San Francisco wasn’t for real, that their record was just an early season fluke despite big win after big win. Having already won over the locker room with the charismatic and emotional way that he previously won over impressionable college players, Harbaugh turned his attention to the rest of the league.

After an emotional game that his squad ultimately managed to win 25-19, Harbaugh jumped up and down on the sidelines like he had just won a playoff game. It was sort of endearing in a way, and it provided a great window into why the 49ers players had rallied around him the way they had. Why they seemed to have that college football player enthusiasm even though they were professional players who only cared about money and ruining people's fantasy football teams. And, more to the point, why even though they were made up of largely the same pieces that were in place in years past – they looked like an entirely different squad.

It’s simply, really. You can’t pump life into a dead, listless franchise if your coach has no life in him.

So, back to Harbaugh at the end of the game. There he is, celebrating and hop, skip and jumping towards midfield, oblivious to the fact that Schwartz is running his way. At the last second, he spots the Lions head coach and his outstretched hand and reciprocates the gesture. Only he has a bunch of momentum and shakes his counterpart’s hand too hard and gives him a slap on the back.

Here is video version of how it happened:

Between that handshake and the embarrassing spectacle that ensued, folks were left scratching their heads wondering what went wrong. Did Schwartz not appreciate the hard slap on his back? Was Harbaugh’s grip too firm? Was it just a classic case of the losing Jim being jealous of the winning Jim?

After the game, Schwartz would tell the media that Harbaugh said some sort of obscenity to him. That what sparked his ire was the combination of that curse word being hurled at him, the back slap and so on and so forth.

Whatever you say, coach – the video didn’t really reflect that. Maybe Harbaugh said an obscenity at some point, but it seemed like the only crime that the 49ers coach actually committed was an overly-jolly handshake and that potentially painful back slap.

If the problem was the painful backslap, someone refer Schwartz to New Orleans where Saints head coach Sean Payton had surgery on Monday to repair a fractured bone and torn meniscus in his left leg as a result of an injury he suffered on Sunday. You know, an actual injury.  

Look, there is something to be said for acting like you’ve won before. But the 49ers haven’t – so the point is moot. This is San Francisco’s first solid run in a long, long time, and there is nothing wrong with being passionate about that. A passion that Harbaugh owns up to, mind you.

"That was a really emotional game," Harbaugh said after the circus died down.

"I was just really revved up, and it was totally on me. I shook his hand too hard, and I really went in. It was a strong slap-grab handshake … A little too hard, the handshake."

And that’s precisely what it was, a handshake that was perhaps too hard for Schwartz’s comfort. Either way, it certainly wasn’t something that the Lions head coach should have gotten into a tizzy over, and definitely not something that warranted him chasing Harbaugh around like an angry puppy all over the field.

Whoever wants to throw out the “act like you’ve won before” card against Harbaugh should be prepared to have the “be the bigger man” card tossed right back at them. The only difference between the two coaches on Sunday was that Harbaugh was happy because his team squeezed out an important win, whereas Schwartz just had his pride hurt during a stupid formality at the end of the game.

At the end of the day, the NFL doesn’t hand out a Miss Congeniality award come February. Your life as a coach is defined by two things – wins and losses. So long as Harbaugh provides a lot of the former and a limited amount of the latter, he doesn’t owe any sort of handshake, apology or explanations to anyone.

Nobody needs to tell him that, though. After the game, he made it clear that there’s only group whose opinions and actions matter to him.

"When you work with a group of guys, you're on a team, you're trying to do something special and to see your guys go out there and perform that way, yeah, I do get emotional about that. It fires me up. It fires me up a lot. I'm not going to apologize for that. If that offends you or anybody else, then so be it."