Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco 49ers building something special

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Within the shadows of the white steel beams that are slowly starting to resemble the foundation of a football stadium, within earshot of the echoes created by heavy hammers and giant drills, something else is being built.

It is a very different project -- one that requires no nails and no cement. But here at the San Francisco 49ers' practice facility, literally a few feet from where the team's new stadium is being erected, the mentality is still the same.

"Look around," said wide receiver Kyle Williams, standing inside San Francisco's locker room Thursday. "We all have these blue-collared shirts hanging in our lockers. They came straight from the coach. Everyone has them in the building. It's how we go about every single day. It's how we work.

"That's what we want our identity to be: Blue-collared guys who go out there and work their asses off."

Just like that stadium, this team, under the direction of second-year coach Jim Harbaugh, has made amazingly swift progress. A commanding Week 1 win against the Green Bay Packers validated last season's impressive turnaround, and the 49ers continue to make the case that, also like that new stadium, they plan on staying awhile.

Williams wasn't kidding. Inside his locker, two shirts -- light blue with short sleeves and name patches, just like those worn by any number of working men -- dangle from a pair of wire hangers. It's a device that Harbaugh brought with him from Stanford, one that he continues to use to carry his message in the NFL.

And you know what? The mentality is spreading.

"Nobody really thought we had a chance in that game against Green Bay," cornerback Carlos Rogers said. "I hear some of their players saying they let the game go -- that they were the reason for the loss. But we had them off balance. What we did to (Packers quarterback) Aaron Rodgers -- the MVP of this league -- we had him confused. We were in those receivers' faces, jammed them up. We shocked people.

"That game could have really gotten out of hand, even worse than it was."

The 49ers instead settled for a 30-22 win, one that became more impressive in the wake of the Packers' rebound performance Thursday night against the Chicago Bears. Yes, it was just one win. But don't buy into any of the rhetoric: That was one big win.

And so here we are, with the 49ers eyeing another huge opportunity, this one at home against the Detroit Lions on Sunday Night Football. San Francisco can further establish a tone that was seemingly first set in a 2011 matchup against this very team.

It was Week 6. Harbaugh's new team had just won its fourth consecutive game by beating the Lions, 25-19. In a display of fiery excitement, when it came time for the traditional postgame coaches' handshake, Harbaugh aggressively slapped hands at midfield with Detroit's Jim Schwartz.

The perceived lack of sportsmanship ignited a confrontation between the two men -- one that has resonated ever since.

Harbaugh, who never felt the need to apologize for the exchange despite acknowledging he'd "get better at the postgame handshake," might have looked a touch too intense that day. But the 13-3 record -- and trip to the NFC Championship Game -- that ensued left his players wondering if there was some method to the madness.

"We love playing for our coach -- and we love playing for the guys in this locker room," tackle Joe Staley said. "We're a very close team."

To be fair, the team had already embarked on the path toward buying into the Harbaugh way. Many players can actually pinpoint exactly when it began: Less than three weeks before the Lions game, in Youngstown, Ohio.

After a 13-8 win against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 3 that included a 10-point fourth quarter, the 49ers were set to visit the Philadelphia Eagles for their second straight Eastern-time-zone matchup. So they stayed in Ohio for the week. Players started to bond. A team started to form. And Harbaugh started to win over his locker room.

"That's when (Harbaugh) told us the story about his childhood," Rogers said. "He didn't have much. His family was living in a small house, but they had everything they needed. So his father would always ask them, 'Who's got it better than us?' "

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That's why, after every game, Harbaugh always finishes his speech with that now-famous question -- "Who's got it better than us?" -- to which his players respond in unison, "No-body!" After Harbaugh's speech in Youngstown, the meaning of the motivational mantra really began to sink in for many players.

"When you've got the people next to you, when you've got a locker room like this, you don't need anything else," Williams said. "We know what we have in here. The way we go about our work, we bust our ass every day. That's why we've been good. That mentality. That message. It's a direct correlation.

"Who's got it better than us?"

Of course, last season's success can't entirely be attributed to Harbaugh -- nor can the positive forecast for 2012. The building process started years ago through the draft, and general manager Trent Baalke deserves credit for bringing the right types of players onboard.

There is an unmistakable vibe at 49ers headquarters these days, one that reeks of potential in the same way that a construction site smells like sawdust. These men are hard at work. They are making something special, something lasting.

But while the foundation is in place, the job isn't done. So the 49ers will attempt to do what every good construction worker does:

They'll put their heads down, and they'll keep at it. They'll keep grinding. They'll keep building from the ground up.

Because that's what the boss expects.

"The sky is the limit, if we keep doing the things we're doing," safety Dashon Goldson said. "We're taking this one thing at a time -- but we're taking everything we can get. We knew last week's game would be a challenge. We don't belittle our opponent. But we knew what we have as a team.

"We've got a lot of momentum, coming off a good season last year, a good training camp, and a good win in the first week. We still have a lot of work to do -- stuff we left out there against the Packers. But the mindset is there."

Now, if you'll excuse them, these men have some work to do.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @JeffDarlington.

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