Jim Harbaugh, who barked and snapped at reporters when he was pivoting between jobs following his 2011 Orange Bowl victory with Stanford, was in a far softer, more nostalgic, more emotional frame of mind as he parted ways with the 49ers on Sunday.
The man renowned for his hard edges and hypercompetitive personality praised his players and said he was “forever proud to call these men friends.” He thanked the 49ers staff, fans and reporters, and he even had kind words for the 49ers officials with whom he no longer could coexist.
Harbaugh had another year on his contract and never had a losing season since arriving in 2011. But Sunday’s game – a 20-17 win over the Arizona Cardinals – was his last with the team. When it ended, the quirky coach that 49ers fans quickly embraced as he turned the franchise into a winner – and that the rest of the league easily despised as he complained, picked fights and once famously shook an opponent’s hands too hard – was on his way out, headed back to the college ranks.
Harbaugh never once uttered the word “Michigan,” where he played quarterback from 1983 to 1986 and where his father, Jack, was once an assistant coach, during his 16-minute postgame news conference. Instead he said there would be an announcement, believed to be on Tuesday, coming shortly. Michigan reportedly has offered him a six-year deal worth as much as $49 million.
“This has been the time of my life,” Harbaugh said. “It’s like that song – had the time of my life. Had a lot of fun and it’s the relationships that were made along the way, and that’s what a team is.”
Harbaugh not only won his final game with the 49ers. He won the public relations battle with the team’s management. Harbaugh may have been tempted at times to diverge from what he called the “high road” as it became clear this season that this would be his final year with San Francisco.
But he never did. Meanwhile, leaks from inside 49ers headquarters – that Harbaugh was losing the locker room, that he would be gone at the end of the season – forecast his departure almost as soon as the season began and added to a season rife with off-the-field problems.
While Harbaugh spent an hour after Sunday’s game waving to fans who chanted “Harbaugh! Harbaugh!,” shaking hands with his players, and telling reporters how much he valued them over the last four years, team officials sent out a news release announcing the sides “mutually agree to part ways.” Team CEO Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke will hold a news conference Monday at 1 p.m.
“Jim and I have come to the conclusion that it is in our mutual best interest to move in different directions,” York said in the release. “We thank Jim for bringing a tremendous competitive nature and a great passion for the game to the 49ers. He and his staff restored a winning culture that has been the standard for our franchise throughout its history.”
Throughout the season, it was hard to find any fissures between Harbaugh and his players. And many of them went into Sunday’s finale hoping to send Harbaugh out as a winner.
“That was my mindset,” veteran receiver Anquan Boldin said. “To go out and at least send him out in the right way. We wanted to play well for him; we wanted to win for him.”
Safety Craig Dahl’s interception with 90 seconds remaining sealed the win for the 49ers. After he caught it, Dahl ran to the sideline and presented the ball to Harbaugh, who cradled it in his arm for the rest of the game and when he ran into the locker room afterward.
Dahl said the gesture was spontaneous. “I just wanted him to know I appreciate all his work and his effort,” he said.
Harbaugh also was doused with Gatorade by young 49ers Quinton Patton and Nick Moody at game’s end, making him perhaps the only coach ousted by management to get a celebratory dunking.
Afterward, three of the most prominent 49ers – Boldin, running back Frank Gore and quarterback Colin Kaepernick – all said they wished Harbaugh were coming back. Asked if he understood why Harbaugh was leaving, Boldin said no.
“But we don’t make those decisions,” he said. “So you’re asking the wrong guy about that. If it was my decision, he would be here. But obviously he’s not. It’s not my decision.”
Sunday’s win leaves the 49ers with an 8-8 record, a disappointment in a season that began with Super Bowl aspirations.
But it also means that Harbaugh, who took the team to the playoffs in 2011 after an eight-year absence and who is the only coach in NFL history to lead his team to the NFC Championship in his first three seasons, never has had a losing season as head coach. The only other 49ers coach who can say that is George Seifert.
“Do you think you’re going to miss the NFL?” Harbaugh was asked.
“Uh, is the NFL going somewhere?” he answered.
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.