49ers hazing philosophies from Bill Walsh to Jim Harbaugh, and why Jonathan Martin will thrive

Stephen Dunn

A look at the 49ers philosophy of rookie hazing instituted by Bill Walsh and the meritocratic philosophy instituted by Jim Harbaugh while at Stanford. We discuss the success of both programs and why Jonathan Martin will thrive in the 49ers locker room.

Roger Craig has written about his pride in the work ethic he was able to instill in the 49ers organization. If you have not yet read the book 100 Things 49ers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die by Daniel Brown, I encourage you to do so. There are little treasures inside and it brings to mind so many great memories as a fan.

As I was reading the book last year, the news regarding the strange Richie Incognito - Jonathan Martin saga surfaced, and one point about the 49ers in the book jutted out.

During the tenure of Craig's career, the 49ers culture evolved into one driven by work ethic. Craig made it a practice to sprint to the end zone every time he touched the ball. After he reached the end zone, he would then run back to the huddle. At first, teammates would make fun of him. But, eventually, everyone on the team turned it into a practice. Because of his hustle and zeal, a new work ethic emerged within the organization.

Craig went on to explain:

"Pretty soon when the new draft choices came in, veterans would notice if the running backs weren't sprinting the plays out. Somebody would yell, ‘Run it out! Run it out!' I took Jerry Rice under my wing when he got there in 1985, and he helped pass along that approach to future generations."

"We pushed young bucks in our camp, but we didn't believe in rookie hazing. That was something Bill Walsh didn't like. He said, ‘Why are you going to haze these guys when you might need them?'"

Following the Incognito-Martin saga, there's been some discussion that hazing is a normal part of the NFL locker room culture. As outsiders, appalled by the details, fans have a difficult time understanding the dynamics. Depending on whose side of the story you believe, Martin is either a brave whistle-blower or a weak-minded backstabber.

What is clear is the hazing within the Miami Dolphins locker room was known and allowed (at least on some level) by some of the coaches. And, while it may have been tolerated in Miami, it is not a practice tolerated in all locker rooms.

Craig shed light on Walsh's and the 49ers' viewpoint of rookie hazing. He played with the 49ers from 1983 to 1990. Clearly, at least one franchise did not believe in the concept of "toughening up" players and that was over a quarter of a century ago.

"The way Bill saw it, if you hazed rookies you might get them so scared they couldn't focus on the game. You might destroy their confidence. So Bill didn't allow that. After all they were there to help us win more Super Bowls." -- Roger Craig

Also, well before the bizarre Miami locker room scandal gained public attention, Stanford Insider, David Lombardi wrote an interesting article on the team's epic rise to football glory. In it, Lombardi identified the culture of the Cardinal locker room that boosted a vibrant walk-on program.

According to Lombardi, some walk-on players contributed significantly to the team's success. But, the fascinating element of their success was the cohesive nature of the Stanford program. What is relatively unknown to many NFL fans is Jim Harbaugh insisted the walk-ons (even those who rarely played) be fully integrated into the Stanford football program.

Even stars like Andrew Luck treated walk-ons with respect. "Eliminating any semblance of a division between walk-ons and scholarship players is rare in D-1 football" said Lombardi. He further stated, "That's an illustration of the all-inclusive, no boundaries locker room Harbaugh made a point to build at Stanford." While Martin was not a college walk-on, scholarship players were integrated in the same fashion. In Harbaugh's locker room, Lombardi went on to state:

"Everyone is on equal footing, accepted for who they are and evaluated based on their hard work and performance. Martin thrived in this setting."

Luck himself referred to Harbaugh's program as a meritocracy, a philosophical system measured by achievement. The meritocratic program Harbaugh built at Stanford is the polar opposite of the jocktocracy in Miami.

This offseason, a myriad reports have emphasized Harbaugh's grating personality. Rumblings and wide speculation of discord between him and general manager, Trent Baalke, emerged from all over the place. A common thread from many reports was Harbaugh and his piquancy to win.

Lombardi confirmed this to me. He stated, "The man [Harbaugh] is consumed by winning football games. He has a track record of working to earn every possible advantage in his quest to do that. One big piece of the plan is team cohesion. For that reason, Stanford emphasized that walk-ons be treated as scholarship guys." Lombardi went on:

"With the 49ers, just like at Stanford, Jim Harbaugh has made sure that nonsense is not possible. He has whipped up a singular focus: winning. So, I think this situation is perfect for Jonathan Martin."

The offensive line in the 49ers locker room seem to have the same opinion.

Sometimes our greatest weakness can be our greatest strength. With Harbaugh, his fascination with winning can grind on those around him, but his obsession with winning contributes to a strong locker room culture.

Like Walsh, Harbaugh considers an unshakeable locker room an advantage. By selecting Martin, it shows Harbaugh does not have the man-up "blame the victim" attitude of the antiquated era of pro football locker rooms, who excommunicate players for breaking (man) code.

Organizations like the 49ers show the game of football has evolved beyond caveman testosterone mentality. At one time it was OK to deny your players water on a hot day. Despite customs, science tells us it does not toughen them up. The game evolved.

At one time, it was OK to tell a player who had been hit in the head and could barely see to get right back in the game. Now, with concussion awareness and brain trauma studies, the game has evolved.

Like other changes, the game must evolve past the idea that hazing, intimidating, or belittling teammates is a necessary part of the NFL. Clearly, both Walsh and Harbaugh have shown it is not.

Author's Credit: Thanks to Stanford Insider, David Lombardi for direct quotes. You can follow him on twitter @DavidMLombardi and Daniel Brown, author of 100 Things 49ers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die.

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