Ailene Voisin

Opinion: 49ers’ brass fail to explain why Harbaugh is no longer coach

Jim Harbaugh watches from the sideline during the first quarter of an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014.
Jim Harbaugh watches from the sideline during the first quarter of an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014. AP

Jim Harbaugh could be difficult, arrogant, fascinating, belittling, enlightening, at times even charming. His frequent and dramatic mood swings were as unpredictable as the perfectly executed misdirection play, often overpowering foe and friend alike.

In other words, the former 49ers head coach shares personality traits, perhaps even a kinship, with the man under the hoodie (Bill Belichick), Gregg Popovich, Pat Riley, Larry Brown, Phil Jackson, Bill Parcells, Pete Carroll, and any number of other professional coaches who rank among the elite in their respective sports.

The scouting reports on these men are surprisingly consistent. The special ones – excluding the saintly Bruce Bochy, who belongs in the Hall of Fames in both heaven and on earth – tend to be cranky and demanding, and as the victories pile up, increasingly controlling.

But this is how the game is played. These are the people who win. Are you in or are you out?

The 49ers?

They whiffed on this one.

They swung and hit nothing but air, left their offices at Levi’s Stadium on Monday looking foolish, though not necessarily because they wanted to change coaches, but because they offered nothing of substance to justify their decision.

At least when Kings general manager Pete D’Alessandro used the phrase “philosophical differences” for firing Michael Malone, he explained that the front office wanted more passing, more body movement and a more free-flowing offense that conflicted with their departed coach’s defense-oriented mentality.

Agree or disagree, there it was, an explanation. Last season’s 28-win season was barely whispered. Malone even received something of a pass for the team’s 2-8 slump because of DeMarcus Cousins’ absence with viral meningitis. D’Alessandro, in essence, convinced his owners that the X’s and O’s at Sleep Train Arena were never going to meet in the middle. Heck, the coach and GM weren’t on speaking terms for several months.

Harbaugh’s demise is a completely different discussion. In his four seasons, he guided the 49ers to three NFC Championship Games, one Super Bowl appearance and a 49-22-1 record. In the previous eight years, the 49ers went 46-82 and tossed coaches and offensive coordinators away like empty water bottles at the end of a marathon. Prior to Harbaugh’s arrival, the last winning season was 2002.

Yet though Jed York and Trent Baalke repeatedly were pressed during Monday’s press conference to be more specific about the “philosophical differences” that existed between the team’s top officials and their head coach, the responses were lengthy, but ambiguous. There were hints, but few details.

Colin Kaepernick’s regression this past season was briefly mentioned. The disappointing 8-8 record in the inaugural season at Levi’s Stadium was cited. But Baalke refuted reports suggesting Harbaugh wanted more input on personnel decisions, York insisted his ex-coach denied any interest in an offseason trade to Cleveland, and reiterated the team’s original statement: that this was not a firing, but a mutual beneficial parting of the ways.

Harbaugh jets off to a new job at Michigan without having the words – fired by former employee – on his resume, and the 49ers save themselves a year’s salary and/or the grief of negotiating a coaching swap.

The few takeaways from the rare joint public appearances of York and Baalke, from the hints that were dropped and occasional nuggets revealed, include these: Harbaugh’s failure to win the Super Bowl clearly gave a management group that had tired of his driven, aggressive personality the guts and gravitas to force him out; that the Super Bowl loss to the Baltimore Ravens in New Orleans is the grudge that never went away. Additionally, the late Bill Walsh suddenly and conveniently has re-emerged as the model for the modern day 49ers coach, his often turbulent relationship with his own boss at the time – former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo – tossed under the rug.

But York’s most direct blasts at Harbaugh pertained to player discipline and locker room culture, and could be gleaned from his repeated references to the off-field incidents (arrests for DUI, gun possession, domestic violence, among them), that plagued the franchise throughout the Harbaugh era, most notably those involving Aldon Smith and Ray McDonald.

“Our mission is very simple,” said York. “The San Francisco 49ers win with class. We haven’t won, and I don’t think we’ve conducted ourselves with the level of class that I expect of our organization. We’ve had off-the-field issues. That’s going to happen in sports. The level that it’s happened here is not acceptable.”

When told that he sounded like someone evading accountability and dumping responsibility for the organization’s initial lack of discipline regarding Smith and McDonald on his ex-coach, York adamantly disagreed. “I know what my gut was,” York continued, “and we did things that probably doesn’t gel well with who I am … Ray McDonald was ultimately my decision not to do anything. It was. You need to make sure people are accountable. I’m not putting this on Jim, and please, understand this. Jim was …”

Soon enough, Harbaugh was gone, with litter strewn all over the floor of the brand new Levi’s Stadium, with anger simmering, with questions lingering. Wasn’t there a better way? A chance at reconciliation after four extraordinary years?

In reality, probably not. See the first graph of the column. As one of my male colleagues reminded me last week, referring both to the Malone-D’Alessandro relationship and the rift between Harbaugh and York/Baalke, never underestimate the power of the male ego. We women tend to say it more simply. Unfortunately, men don’t talk.

Call The Bee’s Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208.

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