clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Jim Harbaugh and the question of burnout

49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh is a fiery personality for the 49ers, in a similar vein to Dick Vermeil when he was with the Philadelphia Eagles. Graham Womack had a chance to speak with Vermeil about his burnout in Philadelphia and how he reduced the stress in his life. Is this something Coach Harbaugh will have to consider?

Andy Lyons

Last November, the 49ers media relations department issued a short email that Jim Harbaugh had been in the hospital for a heart procedure. At a subsequent press conference, someone asked the 49ers coach if he was a candidate for burnout. Harbaugh laughed the question off and talk quickly turned to other matters. Nine months on, the interlude seems like a distant memory. Seemingly, no one in the media has addressed it since. But the question lingers.

Entering his third season as 49ers coach, this much is certain: If Jim Harbaugh isn't yet the best coach in team history, he's clearly the most immediately successful. Even Bill Walsh went 8-24 in his first two seasons in San Francisco before winning three Super Bowls. Harbaugh has gone 24-7-1 in the same span, losing in the NFC Championship Game his first year and the Super Bowl in February. Along the way, Harbaugh's built a reputation as one of the most competitive and iconoclastic coaches in the NFL, with an offbeat style all his own. His brash quips in press conferences are as signature as his fiery displays on sidelines during games. There's no question Harbaugh's style yields results. But there's a question if it's sustainable.

Nearly 40 years ago, another bright young coach parlayed success at a California university into a job rebuilding a once-proud NFL franchise. Like Harbaugh, he thrived with initially-limited resources and got the most out of his players, more than they'd been capable of before his arrival. Like Harbaugh, he was known for wild displays of intensity on sidelines and unusual press conference behavior-- occasional tears in his case. And when we first spoke by phone in March, Dick Vermeil told me he related to Harbaugh.

"When I watch him, I see a lot of me in him and laugh," Vermeil said. "I said, 'My God, I was just like that.'"

Vermeil knows burnout acutely well. The term was more or less popularized in the NFL by what he experienced in his first coaching job.

Burnout in Philadelphia

Today at 76, Dick Vermeil appears a picture of calm. Nearly a decade removed from his last coaching gig with the Kansas City Chiefs, Vermeil enjoys a relatively tranquil life, splitting time between motivational speaking, running a Northern California winery and restoring classic race cars, among other activities. It wasn't always like this. Before winning Super Bowl XXXIV with the St. Louis Rams, Vermeil needed a 14-year break from coaching following his first job with the Philadelphia Eagles. He quit in early 1983, citing burnout.

"I can't speak for other coaches," Vermeil said, when we sat down in April at UCLA for a 45-minute interview. "I think there's different degrees of burnout. I think it's all dependent on your personality more than the situation... I was not a good listener. I was extremely driven, to the point of not being as productive. The tempo with which you work over long periods of time sometimes for me was beyond my capacity to be the best I could be. And that's when I knew I wasn't doing as good a job as I had the ability to be doing. I was driving myself right into the hole. I couldn't turn it off. The simple way to describe it for anybody, for me anyway, was I allowed a passion to become an obsession."

From the time he began coaching the Eagles in 1976, long before this really, Vermeil never felt good enough. It started in childhood in Calistoga, California, having a demanding, working class father with one way of doing things-- his way. The younger Vermeil got into coaching early in adulthood, being named Coach of the Year at the high school, junior college and collegiate levels. (In time, he'd earn the honor in the NFL, too.) The Eagles hired Vermeil at 39, fresh off leading UCLA to a Rose Bowl victory, though a part of him felt out of place.

"I think I was always a little bit overdriven because I wasn't ever sure I really belonged in coaching with the Landrys and the Shulas and the Coryells and the George Allens," Vermeil said.

Vermeil made the most with limited resources in Philadelphia, taking a moribund franchise with no first round draft picks his first three seasons and turning it into a Super Bowl contender. His high water mark in Philadelphia would be an appearance in Super Bowl XV in January 1981, a 27-10 loss to the Oakland Raiders. But warning signs began to show, such as Vermeil keeping a cot in his office. Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski would later write in the forward of Vermeil's biography that there was some comfort in knowing that however late he was working, Vermeil would be at it later. But the work began to take its toll.

"Like my wife used to say, 'By the time you get home, what you have left to give me, it isn't much,'" Vermeil said.

Problems culminated during the strike-shortened 1982 season, with Vermeil having two instances of reaching Veterans Stadium for practice and not being able to leave his car. Following a 3-6 finish, Vermeil retired for the first time. He was 46.

Redemption in St. Louis

In his first retirement, Vermeil began to find the peace and clarity that had eluded him in Philadelphia. He took a job in broadcasting, earning twice as much money for less work. He also saw a psychiatrist, going off and on for two years of talk therapy.

"I learned more about myself," Vermeil said of his therapy. "I learned that there was something in my personality that never allowed me to accept a compliment properly. I always had the feeling when someone was telling me how good a job I was doing, they were kidding me. That was just something embedded in me. I always was concerned I wasn't doing good enough. That all stemmed from how I was raised in the environment I grew up in... It left some scars in my own deeper inner being that affected me, especially as I wore myself out not being able to turn it off."

When Vermeil returned to coaching with the Rams in 1997, he was calmer, more sure of himself and willing to delegate responsibility to his assistant coaches. With some slips, he adhered to an 11 p.m. curfew with his wife. Vermeil also responded to a phone query from a Topeka, Kansas psychotherapist named Phil Towle, hiring him as his performance coach.

"I'd recommend it to anybody," Vermeil said. "Have somebody that coaches you."

Towle and Vermeil met twice a month for Vermeil's three years in St. Louis, with Towle faxing written feedback everyday by 7 a.m. Together, they watched for burnout, monitoring Vermeil's energy expenditure, sleep patterns and communication. When Vermeil had some difficulty delegating in his second year with an offensive assistant, Towle called him on it.

Performance coaching isn't the same thing as therapy, though it has a therapeutic component. "You're not trying to just silence the voices that are keeping you from jumping off a bridge," another former Towle client, Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello said in a phone interview for this piece. "You're trying to maximize the potential of your humanity to do phenomenal things in the world."

Incidentally, Vermeil wasn't the only member of the Rams with a life coach. Running back Marshall Faulk, who visited 49ers training camp with NFL Network on July 26, told me he had already had a life coach when he arrived for Vermeil's third season in St. Louis.

"I know a lot of successful guys have people that they can bounce things off, that they trust," Faulk said in an interview for this piece. "Because you just, you can't be the smartest person you know or you're in trouble."

Vermeil endured losing seasons his first two years in St. Louis. The arrival of Faulk, offensive coordinator Mike Martz and heretofore unknown quarterback Kurt Warner transformed the Rams into a Super Bowl team, the "Greatest Show on Turf." The rest is history. Vermeil retired again following his triumph, then returned a year later to coach five more seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, taking Towle with him.

"He never stopped growing," Towle said.

Harbaugh the next Vermeil?

Personality-wise, Jim Harbaugh may be the closest thing to Dick Vermeil among current NFL coaches. "One guy that worked for me for five years works for him," Vermeil said. "He keeps saying, 'You guys are a lot alike coach.' So I take that as a compliment."

But that doesn't mean Harbaugh has to go down the same road Vermeil did, for a number of reasons.

Before playing for Vermeil, Faulk was teammates with Harbaugh in Indianapolis, reaching the AFC Championship Game together in 1996. Faulk doubts that Harbaugh or any other coach could experience what Vermeil did. Now a commentator for NFL Network, Faulk noted how the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement, signed in August 2011 eliminated two-a-day practices during training camp. Faulk said times have changed significantly since Vermeil's era.

"Put it like this, the league is in better shape," Faulk said. "Because the league with how much they remove the players from this environment, it gives the coaches breaks they would never take and never want, but they get them. And it gives you a chance to remove yourself from the game so you can breathe and not burn out."

There are also a couple of important differences between Harbaugh and Vermeil. For one thing, their early circumstances differed, with Harbaugh being raised by a football coach father. Vermeil said, as he sees it, Harbaugh has better control of his intensity than he did at the same age.

"I see Jim, and I watch him work, and I have great respect for him, and I think he's a coach you win because of," Vermeil told me. "To me, he's the next Don Shula."

Harbaugh might be better able than Vermeil to turn on and off his intensity. For all the wild-eyed emotional pyrotechnics of last season, he's enjoyed a restful, almost bohemian offseason. While he's said publicly a couple of times that his way of unwinding is watching game film, Harbaugh's done everything in the last six months from winning a Pro-Am golf tournament at Pebble Beach to driving the pace car at the Indianapolis 500 to sitting in the audience during a taping of "Judge Judy." He's a proponent of positive thinking, referencing Dr. Sanjay Gupta's words on it in one of his press conferences this spring. And with training camp underway, Harbaugh appears poised.

"At the end of the day, he can walk away," Faulk said. "You lose the Super Bowl, you walk away. You grind over it, you grind over it and then you bounce back and you get the team ready. He would be uptight right now, but he's loose and he understands it's a new season."

Questions about if Harbaugh fears burnout or what he does to keep himself well might not be answered definitively anytime soon. The 49ers, through a spokesman, declined to make Harbaugh available for an interview for this piece. It's worth noting that Harbaugh's heart procedure in November was not his first. He had a procedure to correct an irregular heartbeat in 1999. This time, doctors urged him to reduce his caffeine and adjust his diet.

Towle said he's never met Harbaugh. At last check in April, the team did not employ his equivalent. 49ers vice president Keena Turner is in charge of bringing in speakers such as Dr. Harry Edwards, a noted sociologist. Those services are primarily geared for players, though a team spokesman said coaches were welcome to use them. Turner and Edwards were also not made available for interviews for this piece.

Harbaugh is generally loathe to reveal much of himself or his strategies in the media, press conferences a sometimes combative, if entertaining, affair. But those close to him have seen a different side.

"Every time I'm around Jim, I don't get Jim the coach," Faulk said. "I get Jim my friend. I get Jim the guy that I played with and sometimes when I hear him in press conferences and he's dry, I'm like-- you know, he would answer questions like that with us sometimes. But there's a whole another lighter side that I'm sure the guys in the locker room get to see. I'm assuming that because he was fun to play with... it's even better to have him as a coach."

At the first press conference after his heart procedure, someone asked Harbaugh if he'd try meditation. He joked that 49ers two-time All Pro long snapper Brian Jennings could be his point person for it. For his part, Jennings doesn't think Harbaugh is heading for burnout.

"I don't believe in it," said Jennings, who wants to play until he's 45. "I think the way I train, we train hard all the time, and I don't believe in the hypothesis that you burn out because you work hard... I think when you're doing what you're supposed to and you love it, I don't think there's an amount you could work to where you would ever burn out."

Like the couple of other 49ers I talked to, Jennings had high praise for his coach.

"I love Coach Harbaugh," Jennings said. "I think he is the head coach that every football fan thinks their head coach is, but their coach isn't. You know, he's smart, he loves the game, he loves the guys, he dislikes the opponent. He's actually wired the way fans think their head coach is wired, but their head coach isn't wired that way. He's not that guy. We got that guy."

Vermeil doesn't consider Harbaugh a candidate for burnout, either.

"The qualities within his personality are deeper and will prevent him from doing what I did to myself," Vermeil said. "And [he's] probably brighter so he probably looks at himself a little differently than I looked at myself. I was concerned I didn't belong. I think he knows he belongs there."


Graham Womack is a writer and freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @grahamdude.