49ers owner Jed York deserves blame for team's fissures, Harbaugh's exit
Well, Jed York, the 34-year-old owner of the San Francisco 49ers, finally got what he wanted. Jim Harbaugh, the scourge of his organization, who had the gall to go 44-19-1 in four years in San Francisco, is gone.
Now the 49ers can finally move forward, which will probably feel a lot like backward. York thinks he just solved a problem. As he will soon discover, he actually created a half-dozen more.
Fans won’t just measure the next coach against what Harbaugh did. They will measure him against what they think Harbaugh would have done. And that’s just an external hit.
The bigger blows will come internally, where York has created a culture that encourages selfishness, weakness and back-stabbing. Put aside, for a moment, what you think of Harbaugh as a coach. When management puts agendas and personalities ahead of winning, bad things happen.
For all the supposed conflict between general manager Trent Baalke and Harbaugh, the fact remains: Harbaugh was hired to coach, and he did it extremely well. Baalke was hired to assemble a roster, and he did that very well, too.
York’s job is to make sure everybody can work together, and he failed completely.
The 49ers inexplicably sabotaged their season before it began, with leaks about Harbaugh losing the team. You didn’t have to be inside the 49ers’ facility to see the sources of the leaks. You could see it from Tahiti.
When ESPN’s Trent Dilfer calls Baalke the best general manager in the NFL and gushes over his draft picks, and then says in September (September!) that the players want Harbaugh out as head coach ... well, you tell me if you think that came from the front office. And when Deion Sanders reports that the 49ers want Harbaugh out, and that his sources wear "uniforms, suits and ties," ... well, you tell me if that came from the front office.
Even if you think Harbaugh is the devil incarnate, growling at babies and leaving office toilets un-flushed, he was still the 49ers coach. Why would you try to destroy a season that began with realistic dreams of a Super Bowl?
And when the 49ers lose a Thanksgiving Day game to a Seattle team that frankly has more talent, and York tweets an apology to his fans even though his team is still in the playoff hunt, then you tell me if Patriots owner Robert Kraft or Giants owner John Mara would do that.
And when the 49ers take San Diego to overtime and beat Arizona in the final two weeks, even though the 49ers are dead and their coach is on his way out and San Diego and Arizona are fighting for playoff position ... well, what can York say to that? Even when the 49ers had every reason to quit on their coach, they never did.
And when Harbaugh gets introduced as the next Michigan coach, at a salary that is big, but surely not as big as what he can make in the NFL, how will York spin that? What happened to all those leaks about Harbaugh wanting too much money?
There are a hundred details to this 49ers story, but the topic sentence is pretty simple.
The players never quit on the coach, but the owner did.
Look, sports fans: We’ve all seen this movie before. I covered it with the Detroit Pistons, who fired three straight successful coaches (Rick Carlisle, Larry Brown, Flip Saunders) and paid a severe price for it. The Pistons had reasons for each of those decisions (Brown, in particular, was determined to leave for another job in the most dramatic way possible, because he is Larry Brown), but the sum of those moves left the Pistons in a bad spot. First of all, it’s hard to find coaches that good again. And second, once you give the inmates the keys to the asylum, you don’t get them back.
Say what you want about Harbaugh, but he always puts winning first. Where other people thought his relationship with Baalke was untenable, he thought it was productive, and he was right. He has video of three NFC championship games and a Super Bowl to prove it. That is why Harbaugh wanted to stay, even after management started attacking his character and personality. In the way that matters most to him, the 49ers were successful.
You can’t fire a coach who wins to bring in a coach that you like more. That never works. Don’t tell me about personalities clashing in the organization, because personalities clash in every organization. Winning in pro sports is not about avoiding dysfunction. It’s about managing dysfunction. Players want to play more, assistants want their ideas heard, scouts want their players drafted, head coaches want personnel input, general managers don’t like the play-calling. You can’t avoid all that. You just have to find a way to make it work.
What happens if the 49ers have a lousy effort some Sunday next fall, and the coach rips into them? Will the players grumble that they need a new coach and assume York will agree with them?
Why should the next coach assume Baalke and York support him, when they didn’t support the last guy?
And if important 49ers employees want somebody gone, should they leak negative stories to the press? Isn’t that the 49ers way?
Some day soon, at a press conference in Santa Clara, Jed York will proudly stand next to his new head coach. Good luck to both of them.