"He calls a game to help Alex, and if Alex is playing well everyone is playing well. That's the way Bill [Walsh] used to do it. Anything that looks like Bill Walsh, I'm excited about."
Young has marveled at the turnaround of Smith, and Harbaugh's role in that.
"Jim's had to go from a standing start, with a quarterback who could get booed after three throws if he's not careful, and manage that," Young said. "There's Alex Smith jerseys now. Alex Smith is a hero in town? That's doing something."
Harbaugh's NFL playing career lasted from 1987 to 2001 and zigzagged to six franchises: Chicago, Indianapolis, Baltimore, San Diego, Detroit and Carolina. During his last eight seasons in the league, he moonlighted as an unpaid assistant under his father at Western Kentucky, scouting and recruiting high school athletes in his limited free time.
After retiring as a player, Harbaugh spent two seasons on staff with the Oakland Raiders, first as an offensive assistant, then quarterbacks coach. In 2004, he was hired as head coach at the University of San Diego, where he was 29-6, including consecutive 11-1 seasons in 2005 and '06. There, he helped develop quarterback Josh Johnson, the first Toreros player selected in the NFL draft, a fifth-round pick of Tampa Bay in 2008.
Before Johnson, there was Todd Mortensen, who transferred to USD from Brigham Young in 2004, Harbaugh's first season with the Toreros. Mortensen, whose career never got off the ground at BYU, would become the Pioneer League's co-offensive player of the year and later had NFL stints as a reserve in New England and Detroit.
"I always felt it was a matter of, what Jim wants to do he'll do and be successful at it," Mortensen said. "If his ultimate goal was to end up in the NFL, then we felt like it was only a matter of time before the right opportunity came up and he'd be successful at that too."
It was the stop in between USD and the NFL that truly put Harbaugh on the coaching map. He rebuilt a football team at Stanford that was 1-11 in 2006, the year before he took over. In four seasons, his Cardinal teams went 4-8, 5-7, 8-5 and 12-1.
"What he did at Stanford was borderline remarkable with the academic requirements that they have to get kids into that school," said former NFL receiver Cris Collinsworth, whose son, Austin, reluctantly passed on a scholarship offer from Harbaugh to play for Notre Dame. "There were probably three-quarters of the top recruits in the country that he couldn't even recruit. He was basing everything he did on a pretty limited number of potential applicants."
That positioned him as football's most coveted coaching candidate after last season, and, before he signed a five-year, $25-million deal with the 49ers, various projections had him landing with the Miami Dolphins or Denver Broncos, or at his alma mater, Michigan.
Handshake dust-up or not, the 49ers have absolutely no regrets about making that coaching change. That said, Harbaugh is the first to point out the season is merely six games old.
Asked about how he plans to keep his first-place team from getting complacent, he said: "We're definitely worried about it. Dangers lurk, no question about it. The thing we just stress is keep climbing; we don't want to hang on. Like a rock climber, it takes more energy to hang on than to keep climbing. That seems like the obvious thing to do.
"We're not changing. We're striving to improve."
Harbaugh credits his dad and the late Schembechler, his college coach, for having a huge influence on who he is today. He vividly remembers a phone conversation he had with Schembechler in 2004 upon accepting the job at USD, recounting the talk in Schembechler's clipped, drill-sergeant cadence:
"Are you gonna have a fullback? An ass-kicking fullback lined up right behind the quarterback?"
"Will you have a tight end? A tight end that puts his hand in the dirt and seals the end line of scrimmage?"
"Yes, Coach, we'll have a tight end."
"OK. Good luck."
Bo always did like that kid.