Yesterday I explored Jim Harbaugh’s presumed inability to stay in one place for more than four years. Despite what looks like a tendency for Harbaugh to hop from job to job — something that fits with his jumpy demeanor on the sideline — there’s nothing (yet) that proves he’ll ditch a position at the top of his profession simply because he’s too antsy to stay put.
But Harbaugh is the rare coach who might not want to stay. Most coaches are fired, and the York family has plenty of experience terminating head coaches since taking over the team before the 2000 season.
Steve Mariucci (1997-2002)
It was kind of a “huh?” choice when Eddie Debartolo and Carmen Policy tabbed the guy who went 6-6 at Cal in his first season as a head coach at any level to man the same sideline as Bill Walsh and George Seifert. But 49ers fans quickly took to the charismatic “Mooch,” thanks to a 25-7 record in his first two seasons in San Francisco. The loss of Steve Young and some poor drafting from 1997-99 led to a 4-12/6-10 dip, but Mariucci brought the nose back up and soared to records of 12-4 and 10-6.
Then rumors surfaced that Mariucci was talking to Notre Dame, but this CNN/SI story is pretty, pretty, pretty interesting considering recent events.
San Francisco 49ers head coach Steve Mariucci was released from the final year of his contract, general manager Terry Donahue said Wednesday.
Donahue said Mariucci was let go because he was seeking to increase his authority within the organization.
“Steve said he wanted to be our director of football operations,” Donahue said. “They can spin it any way they want, but the facts are the facts and the truth is the truth.
“John [York, the Niners’ director/owner’s representative] has a structure in place in this organization and that’s the structure that he believes in. He has a general manager, a head coach and that option [director of football operations] was not something that was open to discussion. There was no point in going any further with the contract negotiations.
“Steve’s attempt to broaden his power eroded the relationship with the organization,” Donahue said. “It eroded the feeling of trust; things had been damaged.”
Since the 49ers made the decision to fire Mariucci in the middle of January with no Plan B, they had to scramble. The result? The 49ers’ first bad head coaching hire in 25 years.
Dennis Erickson (2003-04)
As E-40 would say, this was “all bad.” It didn’t even seem like Erickson really wanted the job, since he patrolled the sideline over his two-year, tenure with the facial expression of someone who just ate a rotten sunflower seed. After a 2-14 campaign, York fired both Erickson and Donahue in hopes of turning the team around completely with the first overall pick in 2005.
On the day he made a rare public appearance to announce the dual departures, John York seemed to hold at least a passing interest in someone 49ers fans know all too well:
York didn’t deny an interest in speaking to former Patriots and Jets coach Pete Carroll, who wrapped up his second straight national championship with Southern California on Tuesday night.
“I think we all watched the game last night. That was a tremendous game,” York said. “They were very dominant, and he’s a great coach.”
John York’s new strategy: find a head coach and give him power, but not too much.
York said he plans to hire a winning head coach with NFL experience before replacing his general manager, though he doesn’t expect one man to hold both jobs.
Instead of Carroll, the 49ers hired a man with 11 years of experience as a defensive coordinator as their head coach and gave him all the power … because they chose not to hire a GM.
Scot McCloughan started supervising the 49ers personnel department in February of 2005, but Nolan had the keys. As much grief as Nolan gets about the Reebok suits, his choice and subsequent treatment of Alex Smith, and the 49ers’ failure to become a winning team despite looking ever-so-close, one has to wonder if he was set up to fail.
Nolan was given too much too soon, then his power was stripped after the 2007 season, when McCloughan was named general manager. The 2008 season started with J.T. O’Sullivan running Mike Martz’s offense, exactly the kind of dynamic that leads to coaches getting fired seven games into a season with a record of 2-5.
Mike Singletary (2008-10)
The Yorks (Jed, this time) were scrambling. They tried a guy with head coaching experience at multiple levels (Erickson) and a guy with tons of experience as an assistant coach (Nolan). So this time they took a gamble on a Hall of Fame player with very little experience coaching anyone. The fact that the 49ers looked so much better at the beginning of Singletary’s tenure wasn’t considered this way at the time, but it showed how much this talented roster could achieve when motivated.
Just one problem: Singletary was out-coached on a weekly basis, partly because he hired terrible offensive coordinators who he could force into comically conservative game plans that fit his idea of what football is supposed to be. He also seemed bewildered on the sidelines, with his go-to response to postgame questions (“got to look at the film”) becoming a weekly punchline.
Tomsula got to coach the last game of the season against the Arizona Cardinals. Both teams went in with 5-10 records, and Alex Smith out-dueled Arizona quarterbacks Richard Bartel and John Skelton in a 38-7 win that introduced thousands of 49ers fans to Tomsula’s infectious enthusiasm and hirsute chest. Tomsula is still looking for an opportunity to serve as a head coach for more than one game, and Matt Maiocco reported that Tomsula would probably be the team’s next head coach if Harbaugh leaves.
Jim Harbaugh (2011-??)
After consecutive coaches named Mike, the 49ers went with two Jims in a row.
In researching this post I found out that, including the playoffs, Harbaugh has coached more games for the York family than anyone else.
- Mariucci: 28-20 regular season + 1-2 postseason = 51 games
- Erickson: 9-23 regular season + LOL = 32 games
- Nolan: 18-37 regular season + 4 offensive coordinators = 55 games
- Singletary: 18-22 regular season + film, and lots of it = 40 games
- Harbaugh: 36-11 regular season + 5-3 postseason = 56 games
How much is popularity worth? That’s not in reference to how much fans love Harbaugh (a lot) either, but instead how the Yorks have gone from reviled to revered by the faithful in such a short period of time.
Harbaugh’s the team’s biggest celebrity, which gives him bargaining power. He also holds leverage due to the Yorks’ history on this very important matter. Once they got rid of Donahue, the personnel part of the equation hasn’t been a problem. Finding a coach and keeping him has been much more difficult, and losing Harbaugh will dent the public’s level of confidence in a family that, until this last week, was at an all-time high.