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Congratulations, Jim Harbaugh. You made a great choice.
Not a perfect one, of course. Selfishly, I think you should have returned to Stanford (my alma mater) with Andrew Luck. But there is a point where money and opportunity become too great a force to resist.
Rather, the best choice Harbaugh made was picking the San Francisco 49ers over the Miami Dolphins. More to the point, he picked 49ers owner Jed York over Dolphins owner Stephen Ross. To be sure, York is not perfect. At 29, he is still impetuous and so young that he has yet to discover what he really doesn't know.
Still, when it comes to football, York knows one thing more than Ross: He wants to win, and being good at football is the foundation for that. As for Ross, people who have watched him up close and also at a reasonable distance come to the same conclusion: He doesn't get it.
Of course, people will do the inevitable comparisons of the Dolphins' personnel to the 49ers'. There's not much difference because neither has a quarterback. San Francisco has slightly better skill-position players. Miami has a slightly better defense. None of that matters because the most important person in the equation doesn't wear a uniform.
Every NFL coach or GM will tell you that the most important person in any organization is the owner. There are very few teams that overcome bad ownership. Look at the history of the game.
The Pittsburgh Steelers lead the NFL with six Super Bowl titles. They have done that with three different coaches – but only one owner, the Rooney family.
San Francisco won five titles with York's uncle, Eddie DeBartolo Jr., driving the train. DeBartolo made a great hire when he took Bill Walsh from Stanford and then kept a strong arm's distance from the day-to-day details. In New England, Bob Kraft recognized the brilliance of Bill Belichick and let Belichick do the rest. In Dallas, Jerry Jones won three titles early on after hiring Jimmy Johnson and staying out of the way. When Jones started getting more involved in the team's daily operations, the situation went downhill fast.
In Atlanta, Arthur Blank is becoming a great owner because he is quietly trying to be a good student of the game. The day after every Falcons game, win or lose, Blank and coach Mike Smith(notes) go over what happened. Blank asks questions so that he can understand how decisions are made. Then Blank gets out of the way and lets Smith and GM Thomas Dimitroff do the work.
In Miami, after Ross bought the Dolphins, he and consultant Bill Parcells immediately clashed because Ross was more concerned about things that don't matter. Ross spent his first year wooing celebrities like Marc Anthony, Fergie and the Williams sisters to be minority owners. He rolled out the "orange" carpet in front of the stadium because he wanted to turn Dolphins games into something like a South Beach experience. This season, the team put a nightclub in the stadium.
Increasingly, football has become an afterthought. Longtime employees (and smart football people) such as team senior vice president Bryan Wiedmeier have left the team over the past year, leaving Ross and his court jesters to run the show. The priorities have become too skewed.
"It's like, 'Where are the dancing girls? Get these football players out of the way,' " a team source said recently.
Said another employee: "The glitz and the glamour are really fun, but these guys seem to forget that the football is still what people are coming to watch."
Worse, some people view Ross as the geeky guy in high school who hit it rich and then decided he wanted to hobnob with celebrities, buying his way into their little club. Sadly, most of those people are hanging out at Miami Heat games now.
This week was telling for Ross. After ending the season with an embarrassing loss to the New England Patriots, Ross stood on the sideline at the Orange Bowl, staring at Harbaugh before the game. Ross had plenty of time beforehand to gauge if he wanted to hire Harbaugh (Stanford was in South Florida for more than a week practicing). Ross had all week to set up an interview with a minority candidate to satisfy the Rooney Rule if he indeed wanted to fire Tony Sparano.
Instead, the Dolphins clumsily went after Harbaugh in a last-minute run, with Ross flying to California for a Thursday interview in which he expected to bring back Harbaugh. In the meantime, Harbaugh was doing his research on the Dolphins and discovering from other people what the view around the NFL was of Ross and company.
So while there is still a long way to go with York, there is hope. There is a guy who actually thinks about the game. Sure, York has had some missteps. The whole notion that "Moneyball" theories could be applied to football was silly, but the 49ers have backed off that. York's fascination with Mike Singletary's barking style blew up in the owner's face, when he found out that Singletary was painfully bad at managing games.
But York still gets that football is the key. He is competitive and driven. He wants to be great. The late George Steinbrenner went through difficult years with the Yankees before he figured out how to win.
For Harbaugh, who may or may not become a great NFL coach after doing things at Stanford that not even Walsh could do, that's crucial.