BY Art Thiel 02:12PM 02/14/2015

Thiel: Harbaugh explains 49ers palace intrigue

Harbaugh tells his side of the story about departing the 49ers, denying it was mutual. But it is permanent, which is a shame for those of use who enjoyed his cartoon villainy.

Jim Harbaugh said his parting from the 49ers was not mutual, as the club owner insisted. / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

Finishing a yard short of some noteworthy NFL history will be a permanent bruise on the Seattle sports psyche. But it can be salved a bit by winning the Super Bowl next year. No big deal, right?

Fixing the San Francisco 49ers, meanwhile, will take a bit longer. The dear people in the Bay Area who love the 49ers have their own trauma: Palace intrigue that continues to peck at the eyeballs of a stricken franchise.

In a podcast interview with Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News, former coach Jim Harbaugh pulled back the curtain a bit on his final days in Santa Clara. Harbaugh confirmed that the final straw in his tenure was the 17-7 Dec. 14 loss in Seattle that eliminated the 49ers from playoff contention.

“Yes, I was told I wouldn’t be the coach anymore,” he said about a meeting Monday after the game. “You can call it ‘mutual.’ I mean, I wasn’t going to put the 49ers in the position to have a coach that 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’s doubtful he’s making up the facts, if only for the audible clue in the Clink pressbox that afternoon. At least three times when game developments went against the 49ers, a hard slap on a table could be heard in a workplace where no cheering, cursing or other distractions are allowed.

Cranking around our heads to see who the amateur miscreant was, it turned out to be 49ers GM Trent Baalke, who had been at odds with Harbaugh for some time over franchise decisions. Apparently Baalke felt as most six-year-olds do when in need of attention: Lash out noisily.

With the approval of team owner Jed York, Baalke the next day offed the coach who rescued the franchise from mediocrity to become one of the league’s best. Harbaugh finished out the final two games before accepting, to the surprise of many, the head coaching job at the University of Michigan, his alma mater.

Harbaugh said that he coached the last two games in an 8-8 season because he wanted to finish “what I started — what we started.”

After a brief search, the 49ers settled on 49ers assistant Jim Tomsula to succeed Harbaugh. The transition had been speculated for weeks in Bay Area media, primarily because the choice was handy, and because Tomsula was in many ways the opposite of Harbaugh, who was arrogant, condescending, stubborn — and a helluva coach.

Much awkwardness attended the transition in the final days.

“There was definitely a point where you walk down the halls — I wasn’t reading anything that was on the Internet, I was really focused on doing my job — but definitely walk down the halls and people look away, or they look at you and you know something’s going on,” Harbaugh said.

Kawakami asked, “That can’t be a comfortable situation to work in, can it?”

“Better questions for others,” Harbaugh said, although in a rare burst of humor, he added, “I don’t think we were playing out of the same playbook. But maybe there’ll be a book some day. Maybe I’ll write a manuscript.”

Kawakami also asked Harbaugh whether he would have emulated Seahawks coach and archrival Pete Carroll in the Super Bowl and thrown the ball instead running it from the 1 with Marshawn Lynch.

“You know, I really thought they had a good play called,” Harbaugh said. “That was an insightful play against a goal-line defense, and a really neat combination that they had — with an inside pick play. It really was open.

“And that young man from the New England Patriots made a play — I mean, that is a play that the stars of the game don’t make. He made a play that was . . .  at best, that ball gets knocked down and incomplete. But to make an interception on that play . . . what a phenomenal play. That was the play of a lifetime. And all credit to him for making it.”

Maybe that support was a courtesy gesture to Carroll, or maybe Harbaugh meant it. Whatever, they won’t likely meet again on the field, which is, from a Seattle perspective, a damn shame.

I’m sure many 12s are thrilled to have an enfeebled rival, what with a kid owner in over his head, an emotionally needy GM and a good-cop coach succeeding a bad-cop coach, which almost never works.

But for one, I will miss Harbaugh and the 49ers as a powerhouse. What journalist wouldn’t? Storylines aplenty, great matchups between great teams and two coaches, courtesy gestures aside, who are wonderfully alike in football strategy and wonderfully different in how they get where they want to go.

From a Northwest point of view, Harbaugh was a cartoon villain, all Yosemite Sam mixed with Lex Luthor with a dash of Voldemort, with the fashion sense of SpongeBob SquarePants. His twice-yearly “What’s Your Deal? Bowl” clashes with Carroll were much anticipated and never to be replicated.

“I’m having a blast and really enjoying being in Ann Arbor,” Harbaugh said. “It was just a decision I made from the heart and that was it. I was going to go to Michigan.”

Too bad.

Yes, the Seahawks will carry the burden forever that they blew the most critical play in Super Bowl history. But they get a season to make up for it. There’s no fixing the departure of Harbaugh from the 49ers, and from the refrigerator doors of many 12s.

Damn you, York and Baalke.



  • Jamo57

    A couple of random thoughts:

    I happened to surf past ESPN as they were broadcasting live the press conference introducing Harbaugh in Ann Arbor. Seeing his press conference and also a snapshot making the social media rounds of Harbaugh posing with a young Seahawks fan while he was making a recruiting stop at Lake Stevens High, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that Harbaugh is much happier now that he’s moved on from the Niners.

    And I wonder how much envy he must feel towards the symbiotic relationship Pete Carroll and John Schneider share. I wonder if he ever thinks, “How nice would that be?”

    Of course if he’s honest, he has to look in the mirror for the source and much of the responsibility for the road he’s been on too.

    • Its onlySports(DavidWakefield)

      On your comment of envy? Harbaugh took over a Team left in disarray by Mike Singletary and in swift fashion guided them to a Super Bowl.In the 2013 season they almost pulled off the upset of the mighty Seahawks for a return trip to the SB and yet gets dismissed the following year. Where was the love?
      I’m guessing he didn’t even get a fruit basket or a prepaid target card for some new Khakis out of it. A real pity.
      We in the NW are so lucky to have the best owner in the NFL and arguably the best GM in addition to the best coach. No way in hell do they dismiss Pete if say next year we have a down year and finish 8~8 which could happen.That schedule is brutal and sometimes these things are a bit cyclical. I am not suggesting its likely but its so reassuring that our owner has a long term vision and these guys are fantastic at working together. Its reassuring to know this and thus I do have a bit of empathy for Harbaugh.He could never have what Pete holds with that rare amazing chemistry he has with our GM. It gives hope that with hard work and preserver perhaps they could make it 3x to the big game next year.
      A return to the SB is much more likely than in SF that is for sure.
      Go Hawks!

      • art thiel

        Paul Allen had his busybody days in Portland with the Blazers. He still influences hoops more than football, but learned lessons about hiring quality and then stepping back.

      • Militiades

        I’d say it’s more likely that the Seahawks win the Superbowl next year than the 49ers even having a winning record. Their coaching staff looks like it’s in the bottom 5%. It’s one of the lowest paid.

        • art thiel

          Watch the players flee in free agency. They know what’s up.

        • Its onlySports(DavidWakefield)

          A 49er Tsunami a coming….everybody evacuate.
          I would surmise your calculations are pretty much up to par and Arts flee while you still can thought is also a certain reality.

        • Its onlySports(DavidWakefield)

          There have been a number of NFC WEST Reps in the SB the last 15 years.The Rams won it on Jan 30 2000 to start off the millennium I believe .They also played in it in 2001season. Arizona made it in 2008 season and the Niners in 2012.
          We made it in the 2005 season.Won it all in 2013 season.Returned again last SB. Let your theory hold true and make it 3x next season.
          This division has toughened up the Hawks but as I related earlier these things can be cyclical and the 49ers are about to enter the bad cycle zone. Couldn’t be happier.

    • art thiel

      Not sure if Harbaugh will ever connect with a boss. He was trouble in his two college jobs too, and will be in Ann Arbor. Maybe he’ll find a way to work with people on his side, instead of against them.

      • Jamo57

        Very true. My daughter in-law works with someone who played for him at USD. Says he’s a great coach but everyone thought he was a jerk. Well, here’s hoping he’s able to change and grow as he goes through life, as we all should.

  • Tian Biao

    spot on again, Art. love the line about Yosemite Sam and Voldemort and Lex Luthor and Spongebob – that might be a first, getting all those characters into a single sentence. and it is true: a 49er franchise in disarray is good news for Seahawk fans, but it won’t be the same without Harbaugh.

    Still it is fun to watch: the 49ers have an owner who puts his ego ahead of wins and losses, who basically doesn’t know what he’s doing. sort of a Santa Clara version of Howard Lincoln. It isn’t an exact parallel, but close enough, in terms of crippling a franchise.

    • art thiel

      Always seeking the frontier . . . thanks.

  • Will Ganschow

    Great writing like always

    • art thiel

      I bow in your direction.

  • jafabian

    As fun as it was to be Anti-Harbaugh the past three seasons, i respect the work he did for the 49ers. He was able to resurrect the franchise out of the ashes of the Erickson/Nolan/Singletary eras. I’ll be rooting for the Wolverines (and looking forward to him being a thorn in Urban Meyer’s side) and against the 49ers even more. Though they’ll never admit it I’d like to see York and Baalke regret their decision with Jim. Meanwhile, Harbaugh will make Michigan/Ohio State even more of a rivalry that it is now. Looking forward to Jim making Meyer so frustrated he’ll wonder what his deal is.

    • Its onlySports(DavidWakefield)

      There is no doubt Harbaugh will resurrect the Michigan program and give Meyer a go of it. I would love to see the Huskies play Jim’s team in a future bowl game. I’m guessing Pete would likely scout that game and attend for the fun of it should that ever happen. Its still a bit of a shock the 49ers let such a quality coach go but may the Hawks take full advantage!!

      • art thiel

        Michigan comes to Husky Stadium in 2020 and the Huskies go to the Big House in 2021. Let’s all hope Lake Washington isn’t up to the second deck by then.

        • Its onlySports(DavidWakefield)

          Good to know…You think Harbaugh will be there still 6~7 seasons into the future when they square off with the purple and Gold? If he is terrific at Michigan you can bet NFL types will try to lure him back.

    • art thiel

      SF wasn’t on the 1, and didn’t have Lynch. I get the notion of a pass call; it’s the direction of the pass and the receiver that were mistakes.

      • just passing thru

        yeah, why wasn’t Luke Willson in that slot?

  • Its onlySports(DavidWakefield)

    January 7, 2011, former head coach of Stanford University Jim Harbaugh was named the 49ers new head coach. Here in the land of 12s we were embroiled in a home play off game due to winning a division and we promptly dispatched the world champs (Saints) in the “beastquake” game(played Jan~11~2011).
    Back then who would have known the fun to come those next 3 years when SEA and SF went head to head as DIV. Rivals and play off foes.
    The Fledgling days of the PC era. Much talk centered on the whats your deal comment Pete made after Jim reportedly ran up the score in a Stanford win vs the Carroll Trojans.
    It had rivalry written all over it.There was no disappointment to that effect.
    Many of us last fall,,,Art and myself among openly opined that a Harbaugh departure would be a sad occurrence and a damned shame.
    Pete knows the feeling of being ushered out of a coaching situation despite the fact you did an adequate job and yet the powers that be forced a change. Ultimately this will likely benefit the Hawks but nobody has to like the sleaziness of the 49er methods in dispatching Jim.
    Harbs was a coach you loved to hate from our side of the fence but he will def be missed.In the mean time may the 49ers fall flat on thier face these next 3~4 years and we wrack up amny more division champoinships. Go Hawks!

    • art thiel

      I get that Harbs was hard to manage from above. So was Piniella. They both were great at what they did. Accommodate.

  • Bayview Herb

    Does he get paid for the last year in his contract?

    • art thiel

      I’m sure there was a settlement.

  • RunningRoy

    Well here’s another take: the Patriots did OK for three years under Pete Carroll, but his powers that still be (Robert Kraft) decided he wasn’t the guy for the long term. So he appointed Bill Belichick and that’s worked out OK. Who knows, maybe Jim Tomsula will resurrect the rivalry quicker than we all think.

    • art thiel

      Tomsula is the good cop following the bad cop, and he’s working for clowns.

      • RadioGuy

        Not to mention coaching a few clowns, too. The Niners players might start out the gate strong and even land a playoff berth if all the stars are aligned because no doubt the ones who chafed under Harbaugh will feel energized by being out on parole. However, if Tomsula is too much the good cop, the lack of discipline will ruin them in the end.

        • jafabian

          He’s Bob Melvin. I give him two seasons.

      • John M

        Not exactly subtle, but aptly put, Art. Don’t follow all the intrigue as closely as you, but recall some years ago when York first took the throne. He made a number of questionable decisions that suggested a boy king commanding an army. Those kind always hold the suck-ups the closest. Guess his ego hasn’t reshaped itself into adulthood.

        Anyway, I think the Hawks will have a full plate with AZ and St. Louis next season . . .

        • art thiel

          Niners may be the North Korea of the NFL.

          • John M

            You show no mercy . . .

    • Coug1990

      Did you just compare Jim Tomsula and Bill Belichick? Tomsula has never been a DC or head coach in the NFL. Belichick had been a head coach for five years, and a two time Superbowl winning DC. Maybe Tomsula does turn out to be great, but the odds of him becoming another Belichick are not good.

  • RadioGuy

    Good piece, Art, although I don’t understand why it was “surprising” that Harbaugh took the job at Michigan when it’s a tailor-made situation for him.

    Besides the obvious ties both he and his father have with the school, he has a university president who’s expected to take a hands-off approach with the football program as long as the players keep their grades up (something Harbaugh has already dealt with at Stanford) and the AD there is a seat-warming temp who can’t fire him anyway because that’s up to the prez. Harbaugh’s got more control over his team in Ann Arbor than he ever did in San Francisco and he’ll get at least $40 million over the next seven years. If he stays.

    Harbaugh going to Michigan isn’t a “surprise”…it’s falling out of a tree and landing on his feet.

    • art thiel

      The surprise was because of his oft-stated passion for winning Super Bowls. Everyone knew his history with and linkage to Michigan; it just didn’t seem to trump winning at the pinnacle of American sport. But he will have an easier time managing up in college than in the NFL. College presidents and ADs will all perform dubious acts to assure a big-time football winner,

  • just passing thru

    Good stuff, Art. I was in the Bay area for work a lot last year, and the local talk speculated Harbaugh had lost control of some of the clubhouse as well. Sounded like he had more than the issues with ownership going on.

    And I know you journalists will still have fun with the caricatures – ‘er, I mean characters – who own and manage the ‘Niners. They should provide plenty of fodder. :-)

    • art thiel

      Harbaugh’s urgency to win overshadowed his judgments on his roster’s rulebreakers. I can’t imagine Harbaugh doing what Carroll did: Trading a talent of Harvin’s caliber for next to nothing to right the ship.

    • doobieibood

      Those rumors about Jim ‘losing the locker room’ were leaked by someone in the organization. Someone like the ownership / gm group perhaps?

  • CioccSonoma

    Eddie Debartolo tried to fire Bill Walsh at least seven times. John McVay or Carmen Policy stopped him every time. The first was after the disappointing 1982 season. Eddie was enraged at the 3-6 record following a super bowl victory. That fact that 8 starters were out hurt didn’t dampen Eddie’s rage or expectations. He wanted blood.

    Any of this sound familiar?

    The 1982 49ers lost 8 starters. The 2014 49ers lost 8 starters on defense alone. To make things more fun…

    – Their best past rusher was suspended for much of the season.
    – Their other starting OLB lost his marbles.
    – A cloud hung over their left DE.
    – Their 2013 13TD tight end turned into a pumpkin after game 1.
    – Several key offensive starters were also on IR by seasons end.

    One would expect 2-14 record, not 8-8 in the toughest division in football. All the 49ers needed to do was stay relatively healthy in 2015. But Eddie’s nephew Jed didn’t have John McVay or Carmen Policy to buffer his impulsive behavior, and a sterling defensive coaching staff was needlessly gutted.

    • art thiel

      Thanks for the insight. DeBartolo won, as have many owners, in spite of himself.

  • Militiades

    The 49ers have an owner that must be working for the Seahawks on the sly. I can’t believe anyone could be this purposely incompetent.

    • art thiel

      Ownerships in the NFL now and forever has been filled with frauds, deceivers and misanthropes. Rich guys too often think that business success translates into NFL success. It’s rare.

  • HW3

    “good-cop coach succeeding a bad-cop coach, which almost never works.” Huh… that is like Carroll following Parcells in NE