While there are varied explanations for what exactly happened between the San Francisco 49ers and ex-coach Jim Harbaugh, everyone agrees on one thing: this had nothing to do with football.
Harbaugh won 44 regular season games in his four years with the 49ers. That’s five more wins than the franchise had in the seven years before he got there. He won five playoff games, which is more than the franchise had in the 15 previous years.
The overwhelming consensus is that Harbaugh is leaving because his relationship with the front office — specifically, GM Trent Baalke and CEO Jed York — fell apart to the point where he couldn’t work there anymore.
Tim Kawakami of the Mercury News reported that the only way Harbaugh could have saved his job was if he won the Super Bowl this year. Here’s how he described the dynamic between Harbaugh and Baalke:
“Neither man is in this to make friends — but Baalke is a much smoother political player than you’d expect and he has moved into total control of the 49ers operation as Harbaugh’s relationship with York faltered.
“So Baalke and Harbaugh have had many tussles and Baalke and York have gotten weary of the tussling.”
The 49ers tried and failed to trade Harbaugh to the Cleveland Browns last winter. Since then, there has been a pretty steady stream of “Harbaugh hates the front office” stories, including one last spring that said Harbaugh and Baalke weren’t even on speaking terms.
Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman called Harbaugh’s fights with the front office “extensive and nasty.” SI’s Peter King wrote that Harbaugh was “increasingly difficult to get along with,” and quoted a source who claimed one of the sides was “leaking stuff” to hurt the other.
Harbaugh and Baalke have always denied rumours about their acrimonious relationship, and there are other explanations for Harbaugh’s departure that have nothing to do with interpersonal drama.
Harbaugh’s contract would have been up after next season, meaning he would have been a lame duck in 2015. There’s also a nugget from Freeman about Harbaugh growing increasingly annoyed with his inability to control his players off the field:
Several 49ers players became national news for alleged crimes, some of them ugly. One source explained that Harbaugh came to believe the behaviour problem among players in the NFL is “almost impossible to fix.” I’ve also been told — but still have been unable to totally flesh it out — there was a great divide between Harbaugh and the front office on how to handle players in trouble with the law. Harbaugh believes that in college he’d have more control over those issues.
The 49ers are taking a gigantic risk here. Harbaugh has set an impossible standard for his successor — even his worst season (8-8 in 2014) wasn’t that bad. If the team doesn’t get back to the top of the NFC quickly, all anyone is going to remember is that the 49ers let Jim Harbaugh leave for no reason.
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