After the San Francisco 49ers won the NFC Championship Game last Sunday, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier texted his congratulations to 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh.
Harbaugh texted right back.
"He said, 'You congratulate me, but I want to congratulate you,'" Frazier said last week from Alabama, where he's scouting at the Senior Bowl. "Jim said, 'I want you to know how much me and my staff and our players respect you and the way your team plays, and the way your staff coaches.'
"That meant a lot to me. That was a big win for us to beat them this season.''
Harbaugh and Frazier have much in common. They were briefly teammates on the Bears of the mid-1980s, when Frazier was a star cornerback trying to recover from a knee injury, and Harbaugh a rookie quarterback. Now they are both NFC head coaches who made the playoffs while insisting that you can win big in the NFL by running the ball and playing physical defense.
Both have coached two full NFL seasons. Both have turned around franchises that won six games apiece in 2010. Their most intriguing similarity, though, is their choice of career paths.
Both chose to become head coaches at small colleges where they would receive little national attention, forgoing NFL perks for budget meetings.
In 1987, Frazier, his NFL career having ended because of a serious knee injury suffered in Super Bowl XX, became the first head coach at a start-up program at Trinity College near Chicago.
In 2004, Harbaugh, after helping with his father's program at Western Kentucky and working as a quarterbacks coach with the Oakland Raiders, became the head coach at the University of San Diego, then a Division I-AA program. Not San Diego State, which produced Marshall Faulk, but USD, which didn't award football scholarships.
Both found themselves dealing with budgets and logistics as well as recruiting and hiring staffs. Frazier thinks he made the wise, if more difficult, career choice.
"There are so many benefits, for me personally, that came from starting a program from scratch like that,'' Frazier said. "That afforded me the opportunity to do a lot of things that I would not have been able to do, or would not have been forced to do, had I taken another route.
"My first year, we were everybody's homecoming game. It wasn't long before we started winning championships and coach of the year awards, and we felt a great sense of accomplishment.''
Doing it all
With the Bears, Frazier played for famed defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan. When Ryan became the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, he tried to hire Frazier, who had several NFL job offers.
NFL assistant coaches, particularly position coaches, work hard but deal with a limited number of players and bear a limited amount of responsibility. Frazier chose to be involved in, as Jerry Jones once put it, everything from "socks to jocks.''
"Starting a program meant selecting staff, taking care of the fields, picking the jerseys, dealing with budgets, learning how to interact with different people, and not just football people,'' Frazier said. "When Ken Meyer, the university president, brought me to a board meeting, I realized just how strong the opposition to football was on that campus. That helped me realize how much he had riding on me being successful.
"That was a bold move on his part, hiring me. For a small Christian college to bring in an African-American with no experience, to say 'This is the guy who's going to make us successful,' that was a challenge to me. And I had to get along with all kinds of different people. I couldn't just concentrate on football. I couldn't just sit in my office and watch film.
"I had to be multi-faceted, and that has helped me as a head coach in the NFL. I had to reach out to a lot of people in the Vikings organization, not just players, to help us change our culture. Being at Trinity showed me how to change a culture. Or, in that case, to create a culture.''
Next Sunday, Harbaugh will coach the 49ers in the Super Bowl. The 49ers finished 6-10 in 2010 under Mike Singletary, now Frazier's assistant head coach. Under Harbaugh, they are 24-7-1 in two seasons.
Frazier and Harbaugh met in 1987, when Harbaugh was the Bears' first-round draft pick and Frazier was trying to rehabilitate his knee. Frazier can't say he saw a future head coach, but he recognized the maniacal competitiveness that would make Harbaugh a winner whether he was coaching the University of San Diego, or a downtrodden Stanford program, or a previously inept 49ers operation.
"I just knew he was a different kind of quarterback,'' Frazier said. "We still talk about Jim all the time. He worked out like he was a linebacker. He was so intense, every day.''
Last year, Frazier and his staff ran one of the teams at the Senior Bowl, an "honor'' reserved for coaches of struggling teams. This year, Frazier is attending the Senior Bowl as an observer.
Next year, Frazier hopes -- or maybe "plans'' is the better word -- to trade places with Harbaugh.
"You don't want to coach the Senior Bowl very often,'' Frazier said. "That means you didn't have a very good year. The goal is to be where Jim is, playing for the championship. So, next year, we don't think we should be at the Senior Bowl at all.''