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.
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.”
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.