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San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh answers questions to the media after training camp at the 49ers practice facility in Santa Clara, Calif. on Sunday, July 31, 2011. Today was the first full-pads practice of the 2011-2012 season. (Nhat V. Meyer/Mercury News)

Jim Harbaugh stepped to the podium inside a posh San Francisco hotel on Jan. 7 and accepted his mission as the 49ers' new, $25 million coach.

He talked about enthusiasm "coursing through my veins." He pledged to bring back the West Coast offense made famous by one of his mentors, the late Bill Walsh. He reassured everyone that quarterback is the most important position, contrary to the beliefs of former coach Mike Singletary.

Harbaugh won everyone over that day. With the 49ers' regular season starting Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks, the question is: Can he win on the field?

"I mean, without excuse, without hesitation, losing is not an option and that's what we aim to do," Harbaugh said during that introductory news conference.

Harbaugh's honeymoon period with the 49ers should last longer than it did for his defensive-minded predecessors, Singletary and Mike Nolan.

Players, especially quarterbacks Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick, have marveled at Harbaugh's active involvement on the field and in the meeting rooms.

Free agents, one by one, have cited Harbaugh as a driving reason they joined a franchise that hasn't had a winning season or playoff berth since 2002.

Forty-Niners legends, Hall of Fame quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young among them, have endorsed Harbaugh and his capability to resuscitate what was once the NFL's model offense.

Another Harbaugh fan is former broadcaster and Hall of Fame coach John Madden, who was nonetheless surprised at his timing to leave Stanford and star quarterback Andrew Luck.


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"With everyone knowing the lockout was coming, this wasn't the year to start being a head coach in the NFL," Madden said. "Jim Harbaugh is going to be a good coach in the NFL, but it's going to be a rocky start for him."

What makes Madden feel that way? It could be an inevitable byproduct from the lockout, which siphoned off valuable classroom and practice time. In terms of Madden's affinity for Harbaugh, that traces to Harbaugh's 15-year career as an NFL quarterback with the Chicago Bears, Indianapolis Colts, Baltimore Ravens, San Diego Chargers and Carolina Panthers.

"I've always liked him. I like what he stood for as a player," Madden added. "I did a lot of his games, and he was a stand-up, no-nonsense guy. I knew his dad, brother, the whole family. I always had a lot of respect for them. ... Both (brothers) are cut from the same mold. They're tough, no-nonsense guys that do it one way and then overdo it."

The Harbaugh brothers will meet on Thanksgiving night, when John Harbaugh's Baltimore Ravens host a 49ers squad that will be playing its fifth game in the Eastern Time Zone in a 10-week span.

Last Thanksgiving, Harbaugh's Stanford squad was coming off a 48-14 rout of Cal in the Big Game and heading toward a 12-1 campaign. The Cardinal ended with an Orange Bowl win and No. 4 national ranking.

"Jim Harbaugh has been there. He's done it at Stanford," Montana said. "But he knows it takes some time. It would have helped them tremendously to have the lockout not happen. Putting in a new offense is a lot harder than putting in a new defense. There's a lot of adjustments made in that system, so it's hard."

Installing the West Coast offense is one thing, but Harbaugh also has had to teach his quarterbacks simple fundamentals in terms of footwork and visual keys.

"When you have a coach who's played quarterback in the NFL for a number of years, you're going to get a lot of details from them on a lot of different things ... and a lot of it quickly," Kaepernick said.

Harbaugh, in his daily attire of khaki pants and black sweatshirt, constantly is seen emphasizing footwork drills with his quarterbacks.

Kaepernick gave this example of what he learned: "Dropping back from center, don't turn your foot like this because it's going to slow you down, you're not going to get away as quick. Little things like that come through on every play, and he's going to tell you about it so you're fine-tuned when you get in the game."

How does Harbaugh convey that advice?

"It depends I guess on his demeanor at the moment," Smith said. "Sometimes, we're in a meeting room ... and he's very laid-back. Sometimes we're on the field and he's getting fired up."

While Singletary's "intensity" was his selling point to 49ers president Jed York, Harbaugh's fire has permeated the 49ers' inner circle, probably because he had Walsh's stamp of approval upon being hired at Stanford in December 2006.

"Harbaugh has me pumped up and excited emotionally," former 49ers executive Carmen Policy said. "He has a true and deep appreciation for the quarterbacks and the offense. Also, I know Bill Walsh was high on Jim Harbaugh, and that tells me a lot.

"Bill would tell me very, very good things about Harbaugh. He has a certain style and a certain fire that the 49ers need. It's kind of like a mirror (to the Walsh days)."

Walsh passed away in July 2007 but not before mentoring Harbaugh at Stanford in the preceding months, whether it was in Walsh's campus office or at breakfast in downtown Palo Alto.

Walsh, of course, jumped from Stanford to the 49ers for his first NFL coaching job, too. The 49ers went 2-14 in Walsh's first season in 1979. Two seasons later, they won their first of five Super Bowl titles.

That is the exception to a trend. Most college coaches flop upon their NFL entry. Recent examples: Bobby Petrino, Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier and Butch Davis.

"I don't really ever make any comparisons between myself and other coaches, or really comparing anything," Harbaugh said at his debut news conference, "but I hope to be very underestimated. I've always found that to be a wonderful competitive advantage, and we try to cling to that advantage as long as we can."

That underdog aura could end swiftly, however, with a win in Sunday's season opener at Candlestick Park.

Losing, after all, is not an option.

For more on the 49ers, see Cam Inman's Hot Read blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/49ers.

SUNDAY'S GAME

Seattle at 49ers, 1:15 p.m. Fox