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Wait, why are the 49ers getting rid of Jim Harbaugh?

Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers are parting after an incredibly successful run. The divorce goes against everything NFL executives claim they want.

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Update: Jim Harbaugh to take over at Michigan, per report
Update No. 2: Harbaugh, 49ers agree to mutually part ways


Rumors that Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers were headed for a split began in earnest during the 2013 season. They seemed absurd then. Less so now, but we still don't know exactly why the split is happening. The worst thing Harbaugh did on the field was not win a Super Bowl with the 49ers. The next worst thing he did was let his team slide into a four-game losing streak this season, which could become five if San Francisco loses its season finale against the 11-4 Arizona Cardinals.

But even five straight losses can't screw up Harbaugh's record too badly. Win or lose this week, Harbaugh will be let go with the best winning percentage of any coach who spent only four years in the NFL. That record may stand if rumors (LOTS of rumors) that he is headed to the University of Michigan prove true. If the 49ers lose to the Cardinals and Harbaugh never spends another day as an NFL head coach, his .680 winning percentage would rank 10th all time in NFL history. If the 49ers win, Harbaugh's percentage would jump to fifth, behind only Guy Chamberlin, John Madden, Vince Lombardi and George Allen.

Harbaugh is by several measures a great head coach. He took over a 6-10 franchise that had never finished better than 8-8 in its previous eight seasons, and immediately went 13-3 with a trip to the NFC Championship game. He upped that to a Super Bowl berth in Year 2, before losing again in the conference championship game last season that was actually a de facto Super Bowl (assuming the Denver Broncos would have been just as listless against the Niners as they were against the Seattle Seahawks.)

Harbaugh won at Stanford before he went to San Francisco, and at San Diego before Stanford. He has proven himself at every level except late in the NFL postseason, and the 49ers are going to let him go for reasons that aren't much more substantial than "we don't like you." Harbaugh allegedly wants more control over personnel. Few in the 49ers front office are wiling to cede that power, perhaps because Harbaugh allegedly isn't all that popular with the personnel in San Francisco, either.

Only three coaches have ever left a head coaching position with a run of four years (or longer) better than Harbaugh's:

  1. Tony Dungy, Colts, 2003-2008 -- .7946 winning percentage
  2. Chuck Knox, Rams, 1973-1977 -- .7785
  3. George Seifert, 49ers, 1992-1996 -- .750

Dungy retired, but Knox and Seifert can sympathize. Knox won the NFC West every year he coached the Los Angeles Rams, but he also lost in the conference championship game four times. Owner Carroll Rosenbloom said at the time that winning with Knox was more boring than losing with anyone else. Seifert was held to an even stricter standard. He won the Super Bowl twice as head coach of the 49ers -- in 1989 and 1994 -- and yet was pushed towards resignation after losing in the Divisional round at the end of the 1996 season. The front office planned to name Cal head coach Steve Mariucci as offensive coordinator so that he could replace Seifert after the subsequent season. Seifert headed it off and quit.

"It's not a bombshell, not a shock, but something of a surprise," [49ers president Carmen] Policy said in discussing Seifert's resignation. "First of all, I concur in the evaluation of all you people here today that the San Francisco 49er organization is in deep need of psychotherapy."

Seifert was the first in successive examples of the 49ers' petulance since the end of the Bill Walsh era. San Francisco is the only team to fire or urge out* two coaches coming off of double digit-win seasons since 1990 (Seifert and Mariucci), and will soon become the only franchise to shove out two coaches that had more than 40 wins over the course of their of their final four seasons with the team (Seifert and Harbaugh).

(A crude measure of the) MOST SPITEFUL FIRINGS SINCE 1990 (Final column combines final season record and record over final four seasons, so the final season is given double weight.)

Team Coach Year Final season record 4-year record Combined final season + 4-year
49ers George Seifert 1996 12-4 46-18 plus-36
Cowboys Jimmy Johnson 1994 12-4 43-21 plus-30
Chargers Marty Schottenheimer 2006 14-2 39-25 plus-26
49ers Jim Harbaugh 2014 7-8* 43-19-1 plus-23
Chiefs Marty Schottenheimer 1998 7-9 42-22 plus-18
Eagles Buddy Ryan 1990 10-6 38-25 plus-17
Vikings Dennis Green 2001 5-10* 41-22 plus-14
Bears Lovie Smith 2012 10-6 36-28 plus-12
Broncos Mike Shanahan 2008 8-8 37-27 plus-10
Bills Wade Phillips 2000 8-8 29-19# plus-10
Chargers Norv Turner 2012 7-9 37-27 plus-8
Raiders Art Shell 1994 9-7 35-29 plus-8
Broncos Dan Reeves 1992 8-8 36-28 plus-8

Whether you can call Harbaugh's upcoming ouster "spiteful" is a debate, but don't immediately believe any NFL executive who claims he is results oriented. 49ers owner Jed York said, "I would like nothing else but to be in the worst possible negotiating position with Jim" when he was categorically rejecting rumors about his head coach in October. The comment was loaded. At face, York claimed he'd be happy to cater to Harbaugh as long as he won. At a deeper level, York was chiding Harbaugh for not winning a Lombardi Trophy.

York may believe he is willing to do anything to win, but he may also have convinced himself that Harbaugh isn't a winner only after realizing their relationship is untenable. And that's fine. The idea that sports are about something more than winning is an oft-repeated cliche that is actually true. And we all agree that some people will never get along. The 49ers are saying good bye to a highly successful coach. Harbaugh may be waving away his last opportunity to win a Lombardi Trophy. It's all so weird, but perhaps entirely for the best.

*A very loose definition defined by me that is unavailable outside of my head. Coaching transitions are incredibly complex, so just trust that I used my best judgment.


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