Jim Harbaugh flirting with immortality


San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh has been so successful so quickly that it's time to start putting his brief career into perspective.

He's the first coach in NFL history to take his team to three straight conference championship games in his first three seasons. He put Stanford on a path to dominance that hasn't been seen at the school since Pop Warner was running the program.

Throw in Harbaugh's three-year run at the University of San Diego -- where he won 22 of his last 24 games -- and you should get the picture. We're looking at a man well on his way to being the greatest coach of the next generation.

Harbaugh's hot head-coaching career is all the more amazing because nobody saw him being this good this fast. If he can lead his 49ers past the Seattle Seahawks in this Sunday's NFC Championship Game, the buzz around him will only intensify.

San Francisco came within one incomplete Colin Kaepernick pass of beating Harbaugh's brother, John, and the Baltimore Ravens in last year's Super Bowl. A victory this time around would leave many people wondering if it's really possible for Jim Harbaugh to ever fail in this profession.

It's actually damn near impossible to find another coach in recent memory who compares to Harbaugh, at least when considering the places he's coached and the results he's achieved.

Bill Walsh won at Stanford -- a school notoriously hard to recruit at because of the difficulty of finding kids who meet its high academic standards -- but he never took his teams to the heights Harbaugh reached with that program. Walsh also won only eight games during his first two years with the 49ers before claiming the first of his three Super Bowl victories after the 1981 season. He then went 3-6 in 1982, a strike-shortened year.

Bill Belichick bombed in Cleveland before winning three Super Bowls in New England. Bill Parcells went 3-8 as Air Force's head coach in 1978 and didn't reach an NFL conference title game until his fourth season in the league. Chuck Noll had three straight losing seasons in Pittsburgh before the Steelers blossomed into a dynasty, while Tom Landry didn't post a winning record until his seventh season in Dallas.

There are other coaches whose careers started much faster -- including Vince Lombardi, Don Shula and Joe Gibbs -- but the list is not long.

Just as impressive is the job Harbaugh has done in three short years in San Francisco. People can say he walked into a treasure trove of talent, but Mike Singletary and Mike Nolan, his predecessors with the franchise, couldn't maximize that potential.

Harbaugh, on the other hand, went 13-3 in his first season and led his team to the NFC title game. He also took a shell-shocked quarterback named Alex Smith and turned him into a confident leader who could win games by playing to his strengths.

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