- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The season began with fans brawling in the stands, and a quarterback who didn’t seem worth fighting for.

But it didn’t take long for players to rally behind the new coach with the unmistakable swagger. They believed him when he told them they were better than they thought, and rallied behind him when he broke NFL etiquette in a postgame handshake, then refused to apologize for it.

Guys began hitting the way Ronnie Lott once did. Alex Smith became a serviceable quarterback, though until Saturday no one was comparing him to Joe Montana.

Now The Grab competes with The Catch. Winners of just six games all last season, the San Francisco 49ers are just a win away from the Super Bowl.

And fans are so giddy after an improbable shootout win over the Saints, you would think Jerry Garcia came back to bring the Grateful Dead to life again.

“I’ve never seen the stadium like that, even in the years I played,” said Roger Craig, the running back who helped the 49ers win three Super Bowls in the 1980s. “I don’t remember the stadium being that loud. People were so happy, fans were even crying. It was just amazing.”

Credit much of that to a coach so supremely confident in his abilities to lead football players that he walked away from a sure bet at Stanford to step into a very unsure situation in San Francisco. Yes, the $25 million the 49ers dangled in front of Jim Harbaugh was incentive enough, but the chance to prove himself as an NFL coach, just like his older brother, had to be big, too.

Not by the end of his five-year contract. Right away.

“There was no five-year plan or three-year plan,” Harbaugh said this week. “It was let’s win this year. How can we do that? By getting better every day.”

That’s a coaching cliche, of course. Means nothing unless the players buy in.

They did. Even after taking a drubbing in their first exhibition game against the Saints. Even after a bizarre Monday night stadium blackout. And even after losing to Harbaugh’s own brother _ a loss the 49ers just may have a chance to avenge in the Super Bowl should they and the Ravens win on Sunday.

What probably sealed it was the way Harbaugh celebrated in October when the 49ers went to Detroit and beat the Lions. He infuriated Lions coach Jim Schwartz afterward with a slap instead of a handshake. When he refused to back down afterward, it drew the team together even more.

“Apologies to me always seem like excuses,” Harbaugh said.

Getting better every day meant the 49ers had a chance to compete with the high-powered Saints. Believing in themselves meant they had a chance to pull off a comeback with a play that brought flashbacks of Joe Montana hitting Dwight Clark in the end zone with The Catch nearly 30 years ago to the day and beating Dallas for a berth in the Super Bowl.

Vernon Davis came off the field and fell into Harbaugh’s arms bawling like a baby after making The Grab to finish off the Saints. And Craig wasn’t the only one to notice there were tears of joy in the stands at Candlestick, too.

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