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Jim Harbaugh post-game presser references Muhammad Ali, Willie Mays, Navy Seals and … Barney the Dinosaur?

Sep 17, 2012, 1:05 PM EDT

Jim Harbaugh

It was a very playful Monday press conference by Jim Harbaugh standards. The 49ers coach, often at odds with the press even in the best of times, took some time during his CSN Bay Area TV presser to discuss one of his techniques to motivate his team, which is now 16-4 under his direction.

Prior to the game with the Lions on Sunday, Harbaugh said he told the team two stories about one of his idols, Muhammad Ali. One was the often-told story of how as a kid, Ali would run alongside the school bus for the two miles between his bus stop and school each morning. The other also involved a bus.

Ali was training at a hotel for his first fight with Sonny Liston, but the hotel was segregated, so he had to stay overnight at another hotel 12 miles away. Instead of taking the bus each day, Ali instead would run to his training session. “And each step of the way, he’d say to himself, ‘Someone is going to pay for this,” Harbaugh said. “And that someone was Sonny Liston.”

So a reporter then asks Harbaugh what he tells his team following the story to make sure they absorb the message. Harbaugh:

“We don’t break it down Barney-style for the players at the end of our stories and try to explain what they mean. They’re intelligent guys and can figure it out for themselves.”

Harbaugh’s eyes then lit up, as he described other people he’s used as motivation. Several soldiers topped the list, among them USMC Colonel Jim Minnick, US Army Sergeant Dontae Skywalker (who took the team on a tour of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington D.C.), Ali, and Willie Mays.

Harbaugh aid the team is working on getting Mays down to the sideline for a game sometime this season.

“That would be great,” Harbaugh said. “Just want to go up to him and shake his hand and say that me and my dad think he’s the greatest ballplayer in the history of the game.”