The departure of coach Jim Harbaugh from the 49ers

People want to know how has it come to this? In years to come it will seldom be believed. The only coach in NFL history to make three consecutive championship games in his first three seasons, departed one season later. How? Why?

Perspective. It can be slipperier and more elusive than the great Barry Sanders. Where once two men saw the same thing, both men today may see something entirely different.

What everyone saw back when the 2010 NFL season concluded was that the 49ers were largely irrelevant. When head coach Singeltary was fired for orchestrating losses from would be victories, it marked eight consecutive seasons without a winning record. The franchise began clawing its way out of irrelevancy with the hiring of the hottest coaching prospect from the college ranks, marking the team as “something to watch.”

Not immediately of course. The strike in the offseason prevented the new coach from implementing his game plan at length and more importantly, the cultural change that was required on a team that had forgotten how to win. It also impacted the trade period so the new coach would have to work with the majority of the same players as the previous year, including the quarterback Alex Smith. To describe him as “much maligned” would be a great understatement. The former number 1 pick was “a bust” that would need to be traded before success was possible.

So grim was the outlook, what was an underachieving 6-10 team in 2010/11 was predicted to be a bottom two team in 2011/12 by many media outlets.

After a Week 1 victory was attributed to the fervor created when a new coach comes to town, Week 2 saw a 10-point 4th quarter lead blown to the Cowboys, restoring the natural order of expectations. When the 49ers won a dour defensive game on the road in Week 3 at Cincinnati there were rumblings of amazement. A road victory?

Perhaps they could get a win in the Central time zone, but on the east coast the following week, that would be different entirely. (From memory the 49ers won only the solitary game in that time zone in around eight years). The Eagles, hot off the free agency signings of coveted cornerbacks in Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie, were Super Bowl favourites. (Remember that?!)

Things were going to script early in the 3rd quarter. The Eagles were leading 23-3 and it was basically game over, the Niners having to come back on the shoulders of (cough) Alex Smith. Now I’m unsure how to obtain the odds from a game back then. I’m also unsure how to obtain the odds for certain points in game. I have a feeling though that the odds on a 49er comeback win at this point were about the same as successfully navigating an asteroid field. Ie: bugger all. Ie: impossible. Ie: when my wife woke up and poked her head in the living room of our Melbourne flat, I didn’t say anything. She knew from my look it was All Over.

So about an hour later when I was jumping around the living room celebrating A VICTORY (a moment my wife still thinks is the happiest she has ever seen me) I was struggling to explain why this meant so much. The combination of everything above…I still get goose bumps thinking about how good guy Alex Smith, written off by everyone yet empowered by Harbaugh, aired it out to lead one of the most improbable NFL victories I have witnessed.

The back-to-back road victories gave the team self-belief and along with the astute technical nous from the new coaching staff, the 49ers would make it all the way to an overtime loss in a championship game. The great coach, commentator and NFL legend John Madden would describe what Harbaugh achieved that season as “perhaps the greatest season of coaching of all time”.

So given that the following two seasons also produced:

  • a close Super Bowl loss (their first appearance in the big dance in 19 years)
  • another close Championship game loss where the team was hobbled by losing its best player to a gruesome knee injury, an integral lineman to a broken ankle, and two other players playing through a broken hand and a compound dislocated finger
  • a road victory in New England (on the East Coast no less, and still the last team to win there) and regular road victories on the East Coast, in Green Bay and New Orleans (when that meant a lot)
  • more road playoff victories in two years than Hall of Fame legends Montana and Young won combined in their 15 odd years!
  • more games won in four seasons than the three previous coaches took eight years to achieve.

Absurdly the man responsible for the turnaround has now departed after an 8-8 season that featured no less a mass of injuries and off field distractions and competing in one of the hardest divisions.

Perspective of the achievements has been lost, the success enjoyed has only served to set expectations and create a benchmark. Seemingly it was win and you’re damned, lose and maybe he had more of a chance? Now that road victories, playoff games and championship games are the norm, the 49ers were not willing to pay the price that is Coach Harbaugh.

Certainly there are two sides to a story. Jed York will no doubt claim the price of said coach was: he was difficult to deal with; didn’t win a Super Bowl from a talent-laden roster; and Harbaugh wanted to be paid like a coach who had won a Super Bowl. Oh he had lost the players too.

It’s not hard to imagine that the charges against Harbaugh’s personality were legitimate, that he was a monumental pain in the ass to have working underneath you. It’s the image he projects in the media and on the sideline; every call against the team a personal charge. Every question an attack on his coaching style.

And it’s easy to see how his “us against the world” mentality that has served him so well, particularly on the road when his team has been given no chance to win, would eventually extend to management when he doesn’t get his way. Yet as long as he and Baalke could co-exist (which judging by the success of the last two drafts they could) shouldn‘t that have been enough?

The charge that he didn’t win a Super Bowl and needed to win it this season to save his job…well if this is true then management has really lost the plot, and 49ers’ fans like myself should worry (and indeed I do). Regarding this season, the chances of winning were always going to be tough given the loss of Bowman and Dorsey before the season, the turn-over in the secondary and lack of salary cap space.

Not to mention the mental obstacles the players faced in recovering from three frustrating close losses. The toils on offense are as apparent as a Commissioner cover up but to judge the man on this season alone (when injuries have taken a larger toll than publicly acknowledged) is to ignore three years of NFL record accomplishments.

There were rumblings of a player revolt throughout the last two years. Only a fool would believe that after the shots of player celebrations when a 3rd interception against the Cardinals delivered this season’s 8th win. Interestingly, Harbaugh has taken all the blame for the offensive failings yet received no credit for the defensive triumphs over significant adversity. (It has been reported that Harbaugh has little input over the defense but that contradicts his control freak reports.)

And regarding the pay issue? The fact that he didn’t win the trophy is irrelevant. The questions that matters are would another coach have won you a Lombardi and will a new coach give you a better chance of winning one?

Unbelievably we’re about to find out.

About Josh Slocum

Born into the red and white of the South Melbourne Swans, I remember being amazed at age 7 to see a team with our colours that actually won something when the 1984 49ers won the Superbowl. I've been following the red, white and gold ever since. Of recent times my frustrations at not winning a Superbowl since 1994 can be heard occasionally on the aussieguysnfl podcast.


  1. Greg Slocum says:

    Good wrapup of a turbulent 49ers season, or four. The new coach will need all players at the top of their game and athletic ability to get back amongst the top echelon, where they belong.

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