49ers will regret letting go of Harbaugh

Dan WetzelColumnist

The day the San Francisco 49ers will eventually rue is almost at hand. Multiple media reports say the franchise will relieve Jim Harbaugh of his head coaching duties soon after Sunday's season finale against the Arizona Cardinals.

The 49ers' brass has been so out in front and relentless in leaking this news, or news of irreconcilable personality issues, that it doesn't shock anymore. It's been coming for months and months. That was probably the point. Harbaugh was always going to be a goner, so don't fret about the decision, let's focus the conversation on what kind of compensation the team can get from another NFL franchise (a possible move to the University of Michigan would throw a wrench in that plan).

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It's worth noting, however, any number of high-profile spots (NFL and NCAA) are going to line up to grab what the 49ers are tossing out, including, quite deliciously if you're into revenge, the 49ers' cross Bay rivals in Oakland.

(USA TODAY Sports)
(USA TODAY Sports)

There are two things you get with Harbaugh: An abrasive, aloof and hard-headed personality that doesn't take well to bosses …

And wins.

That's him. And in the NFL that is generally well worth the trade.

The two most coveted and difficult to attain things in football is a great quarterback and a great coach. You get one and you have a chance to contend for a title. You get two and you're the New England Patriots.

And no matter what, you never just give either away.

Harbaugh, 50, is a unique personality, one who will never conform or think about anything other than doing something exactly how he believes it should be done. His track record suggests you don't try to manage that – it's fruitless. You just get out of the damn way.

He spent his NFL quarterbacking career earning the name "Captain Comeback" while battling with coaches after he'd change the plays because he had a better idea. And a man who didn't back down in a test of wills with a fully enraged and in his prime Mike Ditka sure isn't cowering to Trent Baalke.

While he was still playing, he observed the subpar recruiting going on at Western Kentucky, where his dad, Jack, was then the head coach. So he circumvented the actual assistant coaches and just moonlighted as a volunteer staffer whose sole job was to find some good prospects. Each offseason he'd drive around to high schools near his home in Orlando looking for players for his dad, stunning teenagers when a starting NFL QB would pop into the school cafeteria looking for them.

"[My sister] told me a guy by the name of Jim Harbaugh called. I was like, 'What?!?'" said Willie Taggart, then a star athlete in Bradenton who had Nebraska and Tennessee after him as a defensive back.

Harbaugh showed up at Taggart's house.

"We were out in the backyard throwing the football around and people are riding by yelling, 'Hey, Jim Harbaugh!'" Taggart said. "They were coming over for autographs. He was talking to everyone."

Reported conflict between Jim Harbaugh (L) and GM Trent Baalke (R) is expected to lead to a breakup. (AP)
Reported conflict between Jim Harbaugh (L) and GM Trent Baalke (R) is expected to lead to a breakup. (AP)

Harbaugh convinced Taggart he should be a quarterback at WKU, not a DB at a major program. Taggart listened and never regretted it. He won big at Western Kentucky. He is now head coach at South Florida.

"He's been my role model," Taggart said.

Does this sound like a conventional person?

How about after a 15-year playing career taking the job as quarterbacks coach for the Oakland Raiders. Harbaugh had a name, a work ethic and obvious coaching talent. He had the pedigree that said he could quickly rise to be an NFL head coach. Just stick to the well-worn path. Instead he bristled at not being able to do everything his way. He didn't even finish two seasons as an assistant when he went looking for a head job, any head job, even if his friends warned him that failure could derail his career (failure never entered his mind).

"Any head job" included the University of San Diego, a small, private, academics-first, non-scholarship, I-AA school that wasn't generally attracting famous Heisman-finalists, former NFL QBs or guys on the NFL coaching fast track as candidates.

"I asked him, 'Why do you want to take a step back?'" then athletic director Ky Snyder said.

Harbaugh explained he saw it as a step forward. He was in charge. He immediately employed his signature motivational phrase borrowed from his dad – "Who has it better than us?" – to which the players who were paying their own way probably could have noted a lot of people. Instead they went 27-2 his final two seasons.

Next up, Stanford, which had won a meager 16 games total in the five years prior to his arrival and just 1-11 in 2006. The Cardinal hadn't enjoyed sustained success since the early 1970s. Harbaugh walked in and told players, "we bow to no man." They were 12-1 four seasons later. When Harbaugh took over as San Francisco's head coach in 2011, the 49ers hadn't had a winning record in eight years. They were coming off a 6-10 season, their starting quarterback, Alex Smith, was considered a bust of a former No. 1 pick overall and Harbaugh's job was clear -- rebuild.

That first year, despite losing practice time to an NFL lockout, they went 13-3, Smith threw 17 TDs against just five picks and the season didn't end until overtime of the NFC championship game against the New York Giants, who went on to win the Super Bowl.

In 2012, San Francisco reached the Super Bowl only to fall short to a Baltimore Ravens goal-line stand with a little less than two minutes remaining. Last year they were stopped by a brilliant Richard Sherman pass deflection in the final minute of the NFC title game to eventual champ Seattle.

A sub-par season for Colin Kaepernick helped sink the Niners' playoff hopes this season. (AP)
A sub-par season for Colin Kaepernick helped sink the Niners' playoff hopes this season. (AP)

Three seasons as an NFL head coach and Harbaugh couldn't have come much closer to winning it all for his franchise. His reward … all that grumbling, all that undermining, all that talk about how he'd be fired at season's end because of office politics, ego clashes and all sorts of other things fans care little to nothing about.

Creating a chaotic atmosphere, coupled with free-agent defections, injuries, suspensions and the regression of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, produced the predictable: a less than great season. Still, the 49ers are 7-8 and were in playoff contention until December. They blew a lead to San Diego on Saturday due to three fumbles.

They are still crazy to dump Harbaugh, especially when the game plan going forward is to make like every other NFL franchise, cross their fingers and hope they identify an elite coach, a crapshoot if there ever was one.

When you have a coach of this caliber you find a way to make it work. The best thing to do with someone of immense ability who doesn't like being bossed around is to make him the boss. Or find one who will work well with him. You think Bill Belichick would take directions well? That's why he just gives them out. You think Parcells was easy? Ditka? Lombardi?

Harbaugh hasn't won like them, hasn't hoisted the Lombardi Trophy (or had it named after him) like them, but his first three years as an NFL head coach was good or better than any of them. Half the stuff they say about Harbaugh in San Francisco they used to say about Belichick in Cleveland, except there was just a single playoff appearance in five years before the Browns fired the coach.

It's too late now, of course. The 49ers made their decision long ago and were so sick of a guy who took them to the brink in each of his three seasons that they were willing to gut this one just to make it look good. So team CEO Jed York and Baalke, the general manager, and everyone else in San Francisco will move on without Harbaugh.

There is no doubt it will be a more tranquil workplace. Good for them. Enjoy the peace and quiet. As for the fans, as for the bottom line, life without one of football's most eccentric and successful personalities is anything but assured.

Next week the Niners will end their Jim Harbaugh era.

Soon enough, they'll look back wistfully on it.


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