SANTA CLARA — Jim Harbaugh tipped his cap to his former high school coach Wednesday, saluting Palo Alto High's Earl Hansen for ending his career with a cinematic flourish.

"It's like 'It's a Wonderful Life' with Jimmy Stewart and the amount of people he impacted,'' the 49ers coach. "That's a very good comparison to Coach Hansen."

Hansen, who visited with Harbaugh at the 49ers' facility Wednesday, announced his retirement Monday after coaching the Vikings for 26 years over two stints. Hansen, 62, won more than 200 games and four Central Cost Section titles in his career.

His protégés include a Harbaugh (class of '82), who played his junior and senior years at Palo Alto before going on to a distinguished NFL career as a quarterback and coach.

Harbaugh initially shook his head Wednesday when asked about Hansen's announcement, as if in disbelief.

"He's such a coach and such a teacher. He may be back — it's hard to imagine him not coaching,'' he said.

Hansen made his decision to retire a year ago but kept his plan a secret, except to his family. He will remain at the school as a physical education teacher and athletic director until the end of the academic year.

"He had great leadership qualities,'' Harbaugh said. "He's been a dear friend. I could call him a lifelong friend."

Earl's son, Peter, is in his third season with the 49ers as a defensive assistant / outside linebackers coach.


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Contact Daniel Brown at dbrown@mercurynews.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/MercBrownie.