I can’t remember the last time I saw Jim Harbaugh that happy, or so at ease. He knew today’s press conference would be full of questions about his future, but he already knows his future will take him away from the 49ers. So he’s happy.
“When he was here, we won,” said Frank Gore, who rushed for 302 yards over his last two games of the season, which doubled as potentially his last two games with the 49ers. Gore was the star in Harbaugh’s final game (a 20-17 win over the Arizona Cardinals) with 144 yards to finish well over the 1,000-yard mark for the season and 11,000 for his career.
But the story — ahead of Gore, the game, the probable retirement of Justin Smith and all the rest — was Harbaugh. As he answered questions, he repeatedly took the high road. He spoke about being proud of what the team accomplished during his four years at the helm and his relationships with players and others in the organization. While he spoke, reports from just about every national outlet said the same thing:
The 49ers and Jim Harbaugh have mutually agreed to part ways.
Before Harbaugh’s final words to the assembled media in the Levi’s Stadium auditorium, the 49ers released the following statement:
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS AND JIM HARBAUGH
MUTUALLY AGREE TO PART WAYS
SANTA CLARA, Calif. – The San Francisco 49ers and Jim Harbaugh have mutually agreed to part ways. The 49ers organization has begun its search for the team’s next head coach, while Harbaugh is now free to consider his next coaching opportunity without any constraints.
49ers CEO Jed York and General Manager Trent Baalke will hold a press conference in the Levi’s® Stadium auditorium at 1:00 p.m. PST on Monday, December 29, to address the announcement and the organization’s subsequent coaching search.
“Jim and I have come to the conclusion that it is in our mutual best interest to move in different directions,” said York. “We thank Jim for bringing a tremendous competitive nature and a great passion for the game to the 49ers. He and his staff restored a winning culture that has been the standard for our franchise throughout its history. Their commitment and hard work resulted in a period of success that should be looked back on proudly by our organization and our fans. We wish Jim and his family all the best.”
“For the last four seasons I have had the great privilege to coach one of the storied franchises in the history of football,” said Harbaugh. “We accomplished many great things together as a team during this period, which is a tribute to the incredible efforts of some of the most dedicated players and coaches in the NFL. I will miss competing alongside this group of players and coaches, I have the utmost respect and admiration for their hard work and support. It has been my honor to share the sideline with these mighty men. I will always appreciate and remember fondly, the passion and support of our Faithful fans, and want to express my particular thanks to them.”
York added: “We are now squarely focused on finding the next head coach of the 49ers and I am very confident in Trent’s ability to lead that process. With the great leaders and talented players we have in our locker room, we are ready to move into the next chapter of our team’s history.”
Harbaugh, who just concluded his fourth season with the franchise, led the 49ers to an 8-8 record in 2014 and a 49-22-1 overall record (5-3 in the postseason). During his tenure, the 49ers won two NFC West titles, reached the NFC Championship game in three consecutive seasons and advanced to Super Bowl XLVII. Harbaugh is the only coach in the history of the NFL to lead his team to the conference championship game in each of his first three seasons, and his 44 regular season coaching victories rank second in the NFL during his four-year tenure with the 49ers.
In the end, both parties were in a hurry to get this thing over with. The 49ers, Harbaugh … everyone except certain key players.
“I respect Coach Harbaugh. I respect Jed. That’s the decision they made, and it’s a business. I wish Coach Harbaugh the best. He’s a great coach. I love the way he approaches the game of football,” said Gore.
“It’s huge when you have support of a coach like that. He gives me confidence to go out and put everything on the line. It might not be my best game. He’s going to support me regardless. To have the confidence when you step out on the field that you’re coach is behind you and your team is behind you, that’s huge,” said Colin Kaepernick, who played two of his best games of the season after the 49ers were eliminated from playoff contention.
“Yeah, we wanted to make sure today was a good one, that he went out the right way. We knew this was a possibility and we wanted to lay it all on the line for coach.”
Harbaugh waltzed off, probably on his way to Ann Arbor. (All he’d say about Michigan was, “There will be announcements made concerning those things.”) But he didn’t leave Levi’s Stadium before talking to reporters one last time in the locker room about how much he enjoyed the regularly scheduled give-and-take sessions. Then he headed over to Gore’s locker. He talked with one of Gore’s sons, asking the boy for his best three-point stance. Gore didn’t seem to want to say his official goodbyes in that setting, with a bunch of media people hovering and his kids around, but Harbaugh wouldn’t be deterred.
Maybe he knew there might not be another chance anytime soon to chat with Gore. If he’s flying to Michigan tonight, he might not see a lot of his “allies” and favorite “mighty men” for quite some time, if at all.
In the end, it’s up to Jed York and Trent Baalke to save face. They just pushed aside the most successful coach (by far) in the post-Eddie Era, and the fans will want answers — and wins, most of all — in short order.
The only thing Harbaugh loses is a chance to win a Super Bowl anytime soon. He’s a winner in every other sense. He gets to coach at his alma mater, after receiving what’ll surely be a passionate hero’s welcome. He’s getting paid A LOT of money to coach football. Most of all, he doesn’t have to deal with all the B.S. that’s circulated around this organization for quite some time. The infighting. The leaks. The arrests.
Harbaugh had a heart scare in the middle of the 2012 season, right before Kaepernick made his first start. If the reports are true that his family pushed him to take the Michigan job, that could be one of the chief reasons why. The stress of coaching the 49ers might have been killing him. There will be stress at Michigan, but it’s the kind of stress that gives Harbaugh life.