Such is the bizarre, staggering tale of the 49ers and their ugly divorce from Jim Harbaugh. Usually, on-field prosperity trumps any political tug-of-warring behind the scenes, realizing that many of football’s most triumphant coaches — from Lombardi to Parcells to Belichick to Walsh — have won multiple championships with complex personalities. Whatever Harbaugh was doing to distract or disrupt the daily mission, it’s hard to believe that could overwhelm three consecutive NFC title-game appearances.
Somehow, CEO Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke couldn’t fix the issue, maybe because they didn’t want to. It hardly seems coincidental that the team’s fortunes subsequently have regressed with frightening speed, first with an 8-8 season, then with Harbaugh’s departure to the University of Michigan, then with the peculiar in-house hiring of unproven Jim Tomsula as head coach, then with the mass exodus of quality leaders and cornerstones such as Patrick Willis and Frank Gore. When linebacker Chris Borland made his groundbreaking decision to retire at age 24 rather than risk a career of head injuries, the 49ers seemed as cursed as they are chaotic.
For three years, no NFL team was shinier. Harbaugh reminded everyone of this at every turn with almost cornballish enthusiasm. “Who’s got it better than us? Nooo-body!” the hyperintense leader would shout as his players echoed the affirmation. He was the first NFL coach to win five playoff games in his first seasons, an astounding turnaround from a team that had won 44 percent of its games the previous three years. The future looked wonderful. The Niners were a 21st-century San Francisco treat, and there was a flashback symmetry to the early days of Joe Montana and Bill Walsh, even to Dwight Clark and The Catch. What could go wrong?
At some point, York and Baalke stopped listening to Harbaugh. Never mind that neither had been responsible for many of the building blocks that helped create the success — Willis, Gore, Vernon Davis, Justin Smith, Joe Staley — and that most league insiders cited Harbaugh as the driving force behind the surge. They were eager to move on from him, disregarding that the 49ers had missed the playoffs the previous eight seasons before his arrival. The ever-burgeoning divide precipitated a breakup that York summed up by saying the team and Harbaugh had “mutually parted.” Harbaugh later told a Bay Area columnist that he felt the front office abandoned him, saying, “I was told I wouldn’t be the coach anymore. And then ... you can call it 'mutual.' I mean, I wasn’t going to put the 49ers in the position to have a coach they didn’t want any more. But that’s the truth of it. I didn’t leave the 49ers. I felt like the 49er hierarchy left me.” It was typical of the double-talk that started a year earlier when mysterious whispers ended up in news stories from unnamed organization sources — almost all of it anti-Harbaugh.