With the 49ers, success isn't enough: Jim Harbaugh will be the third 49ers coach with a winning record who has left the team in the last 20 years.
This strange pattern started in January 1995, the day after the 49ers had won their fifth Super Bowl in 15 years. Carmen Policy, the club's president, told me the day after the game that he had a plan: He would pay offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan a head coach's salary for one year as he prepared to take over for George Seifert in the 1996 season. I wrote that for the next day.
That plan lasted one day as Shanahan accepted the head-coaching job for the Denver Broncos. Since it was now obvious that he wanted to replace Seifert, Policy hired Steve Mariucci to coach the 49ers.
Mariucci was a successful coach, though the 49ers did not get to the Super Bowl during his tenure, but John York, then the head of the organization, had a problem with Mariucci's agent so he solved the problem by firing Mariucci.
After that, the deluge. The coaches who followed were mostly overmatched and the last two, Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary, were disasters. By that time, astute drafts organized by Scot McCloughan had brought in good players, but the terrible coaching by the two Mikes obscured that.
Harbaugh changed that overnight, getting the 49ers to at least the NFC Championship Game for his first three years and to the Super Bowl in the middle year. You would have thought that would have built up support for him with team ownership but it hasn't.
Harbaugh is certainly not the one who is at fault for the 49ers' disappointing season. Before the season started, looking at the free-agent losses, the key injury to NaVorro Bowman and the fact that Aldon Smith would be suspended for nine games, I predicted that the 49ers would not make the playoffs.
It got even worse during the season as the 49ers suffered injury after injury. At the end, they were down to untried players at key positions.
Meanwhile, Harbaugh was being consistently undermined by the front office. I don't believe general manager Trent Baalke was the leader of this. I think it's more likely it was his underlings, who felt their contributions weren't fully appreciated.
But Jed York should have stepped in and stopped this. Harbaugh was his guy. When Harbaugh was coaching Stanford, Jed had targeted him as the coach he wanted. When Harbaugh was supposed to have an interview with Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross after Stanford played in the Orange Bowl, Jed told Harbaugh that he and Baalke would wait for him, that they had no other candidate.
This year, though, Jed was strangely silent, except for that blast after one game that the 49ers' performance was “unacceptable.” What has really been unacceptable is his yearlong silence.
So now they'll be looking for another coach. They won't find one as good as Harbaugh, who was the 49ers' best since Bill Walsh. After the way, they've treated Harbaugh, I think they'll have a hard time finding a proven coach. Maybe they'll promote Vic Fangio. But whoever gets the job, he had better watch his back.