What’s made this 49ers season, this delightful journey, even more fulfilling is no one saw this coming. In a way, it’s similar to 1981, the year that changed the way the Bay Area, really the entire country, judged the franchise.
There were no expectations back then, other than the fact that somehow the Niners wouldn’t win. But as we know, they did win, and San Francisco, beside itself with joy, celebrated as it never did again. The first time never can be repeated.
We were skeptics back in ’81, even to the very moment Jim Stuckey recovered Danny White’s fumble, seconds after Dwight Clark made “The Catch” to give the Niners the 28-27 lead over Dallas and elevate them to their first Super Bowl.
An hour later, Bill Walsh, “The Genius,” the man who said he never read the papers, caught me in a quiet corner of the locker room and in true Walshian fashion, ordered, “You can stop writing we never win the big one.”
Which we did. After that, they won a spate of big ones. But until this season of 2011, for eight years, they couldn’t win many little ones. Enter Jim Harbaugh, the ghost of Walsh.
No, the Niners aren’t as good as the Green Bay Packers (although 30 years ago they weren’t supposed to be as good as the Cowboys). Still, if San Francisco wins Sunday, it finishes with a 13-3 regular-season record, as did the ’81 Niners.
Walsh often used the word “resourceful,” finding a way to achieve. These Harbaugh Niners, like those of Walsh — and those of Walsh’s successor, George Seifert — have been very resourceful.
A blocked punt by Seattle turns into a touchdown? No sweat, the Niners find a way.
Harbaugh won at Stanford, as Walsh won at Stanford. You sensed a connection, although when the Niners were 2-1 and I suggested — no, insisted — Harbaugh had more than a small degree of Walsh in his thought, manner and motives, an emailer was adamant.
“Jim Harbaugh has a long way to go,” sneered the author on Sept. 16. “A long way. He hasn’t proved anything. The comparisons to Bill Walsh are absurd and wishful thinking. This is no comparison. So they both coached at Stanford? So what? College football is not the NFL … If they have a 3-3 record by the bye, it will be a miracle.”
To borrow from my pal Al Michaels, do you believe in miracles? Or in a coach who emphasizes defense — those people drafting for the Niners the last few years certainly deserve credit — and understands how to use Alex Smith.
Couldn’t win the big one? Great coaches make believers of their players, as well as of fans and media. The way the Niners overwhelmed the Steelers a week and a half ago, the way they rallied to defeat the Seahawks on Saturday, are reflections of a confident football team.
“Probably the biggest factor is they didn’t flinch,” Harbaugh said of the comeback at Seattle. “It was a matter of getting out there and making the necessary plays to win.”
They’ve made the plays, and they’ve made us remember the way it was back in ’81.
Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on www.artspander.com and www.realclearsports.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.