Jim Harbaugh insists contract, power aren't issues in San Francisco

Tuesday March 4th, 2014

Jim Harbaugh has taken the 49ers to the conference title game in three straight seasons.
Robert Beck/SI

There are a lot of rumors about Jim Harbaugh these days. He was almost traded to the Cleveland Browns. He wants more money. He wants more power. He will leave the San Francisco 49ers after the upcoming season, one year before his contract expires.

I asked Harbaugh about these rumors. Let's start with the last one first. Can he envision a scenario in which he leaves the 49ers before his contract expires?

"No," Harbaugh said. "Zero opportunity or chance of that in my mind."

Harbaugh said he would not negotiate in the media. Instead, our conversation was something of an anti-negotiation. He talked about all the things people think he wants.

"I see all these reports about how I want to be the highest-paid coach in football," Harbaugh said. "They presume I covet some kind of extension. I have never said to anybody that I want to be the highest-paid coach in football. I have never said that to anybody -- my wife, my brother, my dad. I make plenty of money.

"The other one is that I want more power. I have never said that, nor do I want any more power than I have. I coach the team. I've told my owner I don't want any more power. I want to coach the team. And I've never told anybody else otherwise."

The 49ers have been wildly successful in Harbaugh's three years: conference championship game, Super Bowl, conference championship game. The last team to repeatedly come so close to winning a Super Bowl without actually winning one was the Buffalo Bills two decades ago. The 49ers have done it with a straightforward front office structure. General manager Trent Baalke gets final say in the draft room. Harbaugh's voice is heard, but Baalke ultimately makes the decisions.

"Same things I signed on for when I signed on here as the coach," Harbaugh said. "That's been the structure since Day 1."

That structure is at the root of speculation about Harbaugh's future. There is a perception that Harbaugh and Baalke don't get along, and that owner Jed York will have to choose between them. Time will tell. But remember this: Some people can tolerate a higher level of creative tension than others, and what some see as an untenable situation, others see as a productive working relationship.

"We're both demanding and we want to be accountable for ourselves, for each other," Harbaugh said. "If you haven't had a brother, you probably don't understand the relationship between the GM and the head coach. We're partners on the same team. I have great respect for him. He works extremely hard at it and is very good at it. We are all part of a team. I believe in the structure we have. I don't want to change anything that we do in that regard."

As for reports that Baalke and Harbaugh barely communicate, Harbaugh said "we talk daily, hourly." (He was actually in a meeting with Baalke and others before we talked.)

I asked Harbaugh if he would like a hybrid general manager/coach role, and he said "No. I've never wanted more power. We have a great organization. Everybody in our organization works their tails off and does a very good job. Everybody does a little and adds it up to a lot."

There is no doubt that Harbaugh is demanding. Most football coaches are, and all of the great ones are. But if you think he will be unhappy without a contract extension this season, you need to understand Harbaugh is always comfortable betting on himself. His self-image is built on being underestimated and getting the job done anyway, not on having the highest salary. Most of his demands are likely to be in the name of winning, not fattening his wallet. Those khaki pants are cheap, you know.

"I have never been a guy that wants to get extensions," he says. "If the guy at the top is getting extensions every year or two, it sends everybody else to the water cooler. The reason is, in any kind of budget, you have so much money for coaches. At some point it comes down to a pool of money for the coaches. When I started out, I was making $5 million. You run back for an extension, it shrinks the pool."

When is the right time to talk about an extension?

"I don't know," Harbaugh says. "What I do know is this: I make plenty of money. And I don't do five times as much work as any other coach on the staff. I get paid extremely well. Jed York has always been square dealing with me. I don't think about that as an issue ... I've seen it written like fact: 'Harbaugh wants to be the highest paid coach in football', or 'desperately covets a new contract'. For the record: I make plenty of money. I mean, plenty of money.'"

In our conversation, Harbaugh did lobby for more money -- but not for himself. He said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio deserves a raise as part of an extension.

"He has not had a raise since he's been here. Focus on that."

Harbaugh also pointed out that he has two years left on his contract, and as he said, he sees "zero" chance of leaving before it's up. That means he and the 49ers have two years to negotiate an extension. Whatever you say about this situation, you can't say it is urgent.

"It's a principle to me that you never negotiate contracts in the press," he said. "It doesn't benefit anybody to do it publicly. I'm making this exception in talking to you right now and saying I'm not trying to get more money for myself. But I make plenty of money. I have plenty of security. If we have the highest-paid assistant coaches in football, the best coaches in football, I strive for that. Guilty as charged there."

The speculation about Harbaugh's future has simmered for a while, but it reached a boil when Pro Football Talk reported recently that the Browns attempted to acquire him. You can't fault the Browns for asking. But it seems relevant that the 49ers were not interested, and neither was Harbaugh.

"There was never any opportunity to leave the San Francisco 49ers," he says. "If that existed, it existed in somebody else's mind, not mine. I am too fond of my team, the players, the coaches. I really feel like we have one of the best, if not the best organizations in football."

He said that repeatedly: He loves working for the 49ers. Also, to be clear about this, in case there is any confusion, Harbaugh did not sound agitated. He was just answering the questions I asked.

The speculation about Harbaugh may persist -- that is part of sports and part of the media culture. A lot of people have opinions about the situation. Now you know Harbaugh's.

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