SANTA CLARA, Calif. — It was a gorgeous sunny day on Friday when the 49ers players hit the field for the first time under new head coach Jim Harbaugh. Much like his days at Stanford, the head coach was dressed with a black cap, black sweater along with khakis. It’s a look that we grew accustomed to when we saw Harbaugh roam the sidelines in Palo Alto. Now the 49ers and the rest of the NFL will get a taste of that this year.
This was the first time Harbaugh got a chance to teach his players on the field. Right from the beginning, the coach grabbed his quarterbacks and used his hands-on approach to get his point across. Simulating throws and snaps for quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and McLeod Bethel-Thompson, it was clear that the 49ers finally had a head coach who knew how to guide their quarterbacks.
The entire three-hour practice wasn’t very loud or noisy. But when it did get loud, it was Harbaugh barking out instructions and blowing his whistle after plays. And throughout practice, you can see the change in atmosphere, the confidence vibe throughout the field.
Harbaugh, a very approachable person and a tremendous talker, spent the last portion of the practice at the entrance of the player’s locker room. He extended his hand, greeting the players that passed by. Linebacker Patrick Willis, the now appointed team leader of the defense, cracked a rare smile as he left the field. Running back Anthony Dixon, an upbeat character that’s always full of jokes, had a grin that stretched from ear to ear.
It was different from the scene last year under head coach Mike Singletary. This year, there is a buzz of confidence and joy of playing football.
And this first practice was exactly what the head coach envisioned it would be.
“I thought the energy was great,” Harbaugh said after the practice. “I thought our guys took care of each other in the format of the practice, understanding the tempo, understanding we didn’t have the armor on today and yeah, I was really impressed.
“You wish you can come up with the formula to try to bottle the enthusiasm and the energy that football players have for the first day of training camp. There is nothing like it. It’s almost like the best day of the year in terms of that and if you can just find a way to bottle that and keep it every day throughout the season you really have something.”
But without key offensive players like running back Frank Gore (holdout) and wide receiver Michael Crabtree (foot injury), the coach tried to hide his optimism for their returns. When asked about details on Crabtree’s injury, the coach kept mum on what he knew.
“I don’t really ever get into talking about other peoples’ injuries, whether they’re on our team or anybody else’s,” Harbaugh said. “That’s their body, their business. I’m certainly not going to go out and repeat it unless I absolutely am mandated to do that. That’s something that I don’t ever really get into, the specifics of those types of things.”
Like a stiff arm, he pushed aside the question and continued on his press conference. But by the end of the conference, the head coach scored a touchdown.
With a plane flying over the media tent as San Francisco Chronicle writer Eric Branch was asking his question, Harbaugh got off the podium, nearly tripped, and walked right towards Branch to hear the question.
“A lesser athlete would have hurt himself just now,” the coach joked before answering the question.
With the first on-field practice wrapped up, it was clear that the 49ers have found a man that can change the entire atmosphere of the organization. The head coach is still learning the ropes of being in the NFL and we’re still learning a lot about the new man in charge.
But he still carries a quarterback’s mentality. He’s a leader, a team player, an engager and every now and then when called upon, he’s a man that can put on a spin move to get to the next question.
It’s a new day for this 49ers organization and on Friday, we got a small taste of what the new Jim Harbaugh era is going to be like. His next challenge: putting together a winning team.