BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 09/25/2014

Thiel: Are 49ers plotting life after Harbaugh?

49ers’ 1-2 start and Harbaugh’s short-term contract opens door to speculation he might be done in Santa Clara. Might the list of successors include Seahawks Bevell and Quinn?

Traffic exiting Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, CA., has been a bit congested. /

Relative calm having been restored among the 12s after an impermissible loss, it is time to use the Seahawks’ bye week to take a glance at the good people of Santa Clara, CA., who are puzzled by the new entity in town — advertised as a Broadway-level entertainment, they seem to have landed a carnival.

Besides the 1-2 start for the Not San Francisco 49ers, various controversies have dragged NFC West’s second- (or third-) best team into a fetid pool of speculation about the quality of the team and the tenure of coach Jim Harbaugh — all in the launch season of Levi’s Stadium, the sparkly new digs 44 miles south of San Francisco.

The stadium is having its own problems, mostly traffic mess-ups that have left patrons bunched together in the manner of penguin colonies in Antarctica. Unconfirmed reports say that some Seattle fans attending the stadium’s first event, the Sounders-Quakes match Aug. 20, have arrived home safely this week after a Navy SEAL team was flown in for the rescue.

While these events may be a matter of amusement for Seahawks fans, a look now is timely because the potential blast radius for a 49ers explosion can reach Seattle. While Seahawks fans will certainly welcome scarlet and gold entrails hanging from tree branches, there are always unanticipated consequences from such events.

Such as either of Seahawks coordinators Darrell Bevell or Dan Quinn succeeding Harbaugh as coach.

The possibility was raised this week by Tim Kawakami, longtime columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. He wrote that the reluctance of the club and coach to extend his contract in the offseason, as Seahawks owner Paul Allen did with Pete Carroll, has left many to ask — and I’m coining my own expression here — what’s your deal, Harbs?

Obviously, many games, starting with Philadelphia Sunday, and much time remain to get back on track. And Santa Clara started 1-2 last year, only to finish 12-4. But Kawakami wrote that major change may already be under contemplation:

It’s silly to ignore that Harbaugh is known to wear on people, that the team is 1-2, that (owner Jed)  York and (GM Trent) Baalke are not happy, that his contract situation is set up to be decided after this season and that Baalke, York and (president) Paraag Marathe are probably considering alternative options right now.

With that as his premise, Kawakami made a list of 18 prominent names for his “short” list of potential replacements for next season, should Harbaugh take his $8 pleated khakis and long-sleeve black shirts and find another NFL team where things are “above reproach.”

Besides the usual NFL suspects of former NFL coaches Jon Gruden, Bill Cowher and Tony Dungy, and several 49ers assistants, he listed three Pac-12 coaches: UCLA’s Jim Mora, Oregon’s Mark Helfrich, and most prominently, David Shaw, coach of the Stanford Cardinal, who come to Husky Stadium Saturday bearing bludgeons, maces and truncheons typical for their medieval offense.

Shaw succeeded Harbaugh at Stanford when he took the 49ers job. And while they are different personalities (only certainly succulents such as cactus have personalities like Harbaugh), they share a belief in a run-first offense and ruthless defense and are very good at what they do.

Shaw’s cool demeanor would be a help in managing the expectations of a franchise that has been to three consecutive NFC Championships but has yet to win the Super Bowl. If the Niners don’t win it this year, there’s a chance that Harbaugh, York and Baalke may spontaneously combust, together or individually. A Burning Men Festival. Shaw perhaps could walk in, after the haz-mat units are done, and pick his job.

Bevell and Quinn made the list because they are automatics, the two premier assistants atop all lists that will begin to emerge at mid-season when the hot-seat speculations begin in earnest (making such a list in September may be some sort of record).

But I admit it had not occurred to me that either one might end up in Santa Clara. I assumed that they would begin their head coaching careers in hopeless football backwaters such as New York or Chicago. But either coach would be attractive to the Claras because their departures would do some damage to a rival and perhaps impart vital wisdom, such as instructing QB Colin Kaepernick how to throw his passes a foot longer.

Could happen. The NFL is a volatile place.

Just as easily, the 49ers could heal up their house politics and player controversies sufficiently to beat the Seahawks twice in the season’s second half and make the run to Phoenix.

Nor should Seahawks fans chortle too loudly at the carny show at the bottom of The Bay. It was not that long ago that Allen had to hire an intermediary between coach Mike Holmgren and president Bob Whitsitt, lest the relationship between the two franchise titans devolve into surface-to-air missiles.

But it is permissible for Seahawks to look at the palace intrigues in the Den of Denim and realize how fortunate Seattle is to have Carroll, GM John Schneider and QB Russell Wilson, the three key figures in the franchise, all holding hands and singing “Kumbaya.”

It hasn’t been that way before, and it won’t last forever. But it is what’s happening now. And it’s still possible to get to the stadium and back before everyone goes Donner Party.



  • Jamo57

    To me, Harbaugh to Michigan at the end of the year makes a lot of sense. The Wolverine Nation will be desperate enough to look only at his turn around successes. His status as a “Michigan Man” and ability to tell a few Bo yarns will win the press conference. And autocratic coaches always seem to work better with players at the college level than with the pros.

    • art thiel

      Not impossible, but I think unlikely. The NFL is the best of the best and Harbaugh loves that competition. And he’s proven he can win. That means he can dictate terms and conditions to a new team that he couldn’t when he came to SF.

      • RadioGuy

        True enough. Besides, you get a whole different kind of pressure coaching the college game. NFL fans can be a pain in the ass, but they pale in comparison to alumni and boosters at the NCAA level. Harbaugh would seem a natural fit in Ann Arbor…as long as he beat Ohio State.

        • art thiel

          Except for the money, I can’t figure out why anyone would want to coach big time college football.

          • eYeDEF

            Well, let’s say you had been toiling in obscurity as an assistant, then as coordinator in the college ranks your entire professional life. There aren’t many other positions for career advancement if you spurn the pinnacle. Would you be content to continue carrying water for someone else till the end of days?

      • football hack

        I see the Miami dolphins being about the only landing spot in the NFL if he leaves SF.
        Otherwise its Michigan

  • RadioGuy

    I’ll wait a few more games before breaking out the toe tags for the Niners. I seem to recall another Bay Area sports team with players who had difficult personalities and managers who couldn’t get along with ownership, and all they did was win three World Series in a row.

    • art thiel

      That was pre-Twitter. Coaches have to manage so much more now that it will be a rare coach who stays in one spot beyond five years.

  • jafabian

    The fact that Harbaugh wasn’t nearly as boisterous as he’s been in the past and that he was nearly banished to Cleveland tells me this is his last season. He can get wearing at times but considering the success he’s had since his arrival do the 49ers really want to return to being a non-playoff franchise? I don’t see other coaches having the success with Kaepernick like that Harbaugh has had. I agree with Jamo that Detroit would be a good landing place for him if he leaves the Bay Area. Or Rainer Beach.

    • art thiel

      Ooh, RB. You remember the Slickster’s first post-UW job. Traditional springboard to the Pac-12. Then to its network.

  • seaStrong

    I think I hear something, do you hear it too? It sounds like a window of opportunity slamming shut.

    • art thiel

      Keep fingers away from the sill.

  • 1coolguy

    While he isn’t a favorite personality, getting to 3 consecutive NFC finals and 1 SB stands up well against all other coaches records of those 3 years. The Niners are missing a few all-pro’s, which has clearly damaged the team’s success. While Kaepernick is no Wilson, how many out there are? He will eventually grow into an excellent QB, especially if he gets coached up better. It’s my understanding Harbaugh found him, so that sure means something.
    Harbaugh is a pain but I would expect the Niners to get it together mid-season and make a credible run for the division. This jury is out until after the final game is played.
    Also Art, this line of yours is a classic – Sherm – are you reading this?
    “such as instructing QB Colin Kaepernick how to throw his passes a foot longer.”

    • art thiel

      Harbaugh, like Billy Martin, Lou Piniella, George Karl, Bill Parcells and other notables, tends to wear out those around him. Doesn’t make him a bad coach, just means he’s going to get several stamps on his NFL passport.

    • Kaep won’t last long enough to be great. He runs without the care and caution needed to protect delicate QB parts. He’ll be following in RG3’s infirm footsteps sooner rather than later. Russell isn’t a pure pocket passer, but he’s been careful so far to avoid the big hits.

      • art thiel

        Definitely a higher risk runner. And his fourth quarters will always keep him from greatness.

        • I’m thinking running more than twice a year into Seattle’s secondary is high risk for anybody. For a spindly-legged quarterback? Kaep, meet Kam….Ouch. that’s gonna leave a mark.

  • Dan Whitmarsh

    I was very much enjoying this article until I reached the 6th paragraph from the end. As a father of a young girl named Clara, I take offense at you calling that team down there “the Claras.”

    • art thiel

      The Santas?

      • Its onlySports(DavidWakefield)

        Santas? All I want for Christmas is for Harbaugh to stay as he provides great rivalry drama. I just love his nuclear holocaust facial expressions when he is presented with the stress of dealing with(yet) another loss up in Seattle to the Hawks. Lets hope we can also induce similar looks when we play them in their new stadium this year with the Santas watching on.Please stay Jim and keep that team in its dysfunctional cycle. Its fun to behold from our side of the fence.

        • art thiel

          Agreed. Harbaugh is too much fun, and the rivalry will be much diminished if he leaves.

  • Big

    Thanks Art it’s been too long since I last heard of the Donner Party mentioned in a sports story.

    • art thiel

      Sometimes the small rewards are the best.