Jim Harbaugh is one of the most successful and controversial coaches in the history of the NFL. He led the San Francisco 49ers to three consecutive NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl appearance in his four seasons as their head coach. He also had a fierce rivalry with the Seattle Seahawks and their coach Pete Carroll, which added to the drama and excitement of the NFC West division. However, despite his achievements and popularity, Harbaugh left the 49ers after the 2014 season in a mutual agreement with the team. Why did he go? What were the reasons behind his departure? And what impact did it have on the 49ers and Harbaugh himself?
The Rise and Fall of Harbaugh’s 49ers
Jim Harbaugh was hired by the 49ers in 2011, after a successful stint as the head coach of Stanford University. He inherited a talented but underachieving team, which had not made the playoffs since 2002. Harbaugh quickly turned the 49ers into a powerhouse, with his aggressive and innovative coaching style, his motivational skills, and his ability to develop players. He made Colin Kaepernick the starting quarterback and built a dominant defense led by Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, and Aldon Smith. He also established a strong culture and identity for the team, based on toughness, competitiveness, and teamwork.
Harbaugh’s 49ers reached the NFC Championship game in his first three seasons, losing to the New York Giants in 2011, and to the Seattle Seahawks in 2013. In 2012, they made it to the Super Bowl, where they faced the Baltimore Ravens, coached by Harbaugh’s older brother John. The game was dubbed as the “Harbaugh Bowl”, and it was a thrilling and close contest, which the Ravens won 34-31.
However, Harbaugh’s 49ers started to decline in 2014, due to various factors. Some key players such as Bowman, Smith, Willis, and Frank Gore suffered injuries, suspensions, or retirements. Kaepernick’s performance and confidence also regressed as he struggled with accuracy, decision-making, and turnovers. The team also faced off-field issues, such as legal troubles, locker room disputes, and media scrutiny. The 49ers finished the season with an 8-8 record, missing the playoffs for the first time under Harbaugh.
The Conflict and Breakup between Harbaugh and the 49ers
One of the main reasons behind Harbaugh’s departure from the 49ers was his conflict with the team’s management, especially the owner Jed York and the general manager Trent Baalke. The conflict started in 2013, when Harbaugh reportedly asked for a contract extension and a raise, after leading the team to the Super Bowl. However, York and Baalke were reluctant to give him what he wanted, as they felt that he was not worth the money and the power. They also had different visions and philosophies for the team, as Harbaugh wanted more control over the roster and the draft, while York and Baalke wanted to have the final say.
The conflict escalated in 2014, as rumors and leaks surfaced about Harbaugh’s dissatisfaction and possible departure. Some of the sources claimed that Harbaugh had lost the support and respect of his players, who were tired of his demanding and abrasive personality. Others claimed that York and Baalke were actively looking for a replacement for Harbaugh, and even considered trading him to the Cleveland Browns. The tension and distrust between Harbaugh and the 49ers reached a breaking point, and it became clear that they could not coexist anymore.
On December 28, 2014, after the 49ers’ final game of the season, a 20-17 win over the Arizona Cardinals, Harbaugh and the 49ers announced that they had mutually agreed to part ways. Harbaugh thanked the 49ers for the opportunity and the memories, and said that he was proud of what they had accomplished together. York and Baalke also expressed their gratitude and appreciation for Harbaugh and wished him well for his future endeavors.
The Aftermath and Legacy of Harbaugh’s 49ers
Jim Harbaugh did not stay unemployed for long, as he accepted the head coaching job at his alma mater, the University of Michigan, on December 30, 2014. He signed a seven-year contract worth $35 million, making him one of the highest-paid coaches in college football. He has since led the Michigan Wolverines to a 49-22 record, with four top-15 finishes, three bowl wins, and two appearances in the Big Ten Championship game. He has also revived the rivalry with the Ohio State Buckeyes, and recruited some of the top prospects in the nation. However, he has also faced criticism and pressure for his inability to win the Big Ten title, or to beat the Buckeyes, who have dominated him with an 8-0 record.
The 49ers, on the other hand, have struggled to find stability and success after Harbaugh’s departure. They hired Jim Tomsula as their new head coach in 2015, but he lasted only one season, as the team went 5-11. They then hired Chip Kelly in 2016, but he also lasted only one season, as the team went 2-14. They finally hired Kyle Shanahan in 2017, who has shown some promise and potential, but has also dealt with injuries, inconsistency, and disappointment. The 49ers reached the Super Bowl in 2019, where they lost to the Kansas City Chiefs, 31-20. They also had a disappointing 6-10 season in 2020, due to a rash of injuries to key players. The 49ers have also undergone several changes in their roster, as they have traded or released some of the players who were part of Harbaugh’s era, such as Kaepernick, Gore, Smith, and Bowman. They have also drafted or acquired some new players, such as Jimmy Garoppolo, Nick Bosa, George Kittle, and Trey Lance.
Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers were one of the most dominant and exciting teams in the NFL in the early 2010s. They had a winning culture, a loyal fan base, and a bright future. However, they also had a turbulent and dramatic end, due to the conflict and breakup between Harbaugh and the 49ers. Harbaugh’s departure left a lasting impact on both parties, as they have followed different paths and fortunes since then. Harbaugh’s 49ers will always be remembered as a team that achieved greatness but also fell short of glory.