SANTA CLARA — Jim Harbaugh gathered his players and told them he is leaving, and they joined their voices for one final, familiar chant: “Who's got it better than us? No-body!”
“The last, 'Who's got it better than us?' I said it as loud as I could,” said wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who could soon follow the San Francisco coach's departure.
Harbaugh will not fulfill the final season of his $25 million, five-year contract coaching the 49ers that he signed in January 2011, reaching a mutual agreement with the team to part ways. The announcement came after Sunday's 20-17 win over the Arizona Cardinals and following a 8-8 season in which San Francisco had hoped to establish some momentum in new $1.3 billion Levi's Stadium.
“It's been the time of my life,” Harbaugh said. “Been a lot of great memories, great moments. … It's been a tremendous four years, it's been a pleasure to work and serve for this organization. I feel great about what we accomplished.”
Harbaugh wouldn't say whether he is indeed about to accept the job at alma mater, Michigan, except to offer vague hints and say he wouldn't be around come Monday.
When asked specifically about taking over the Wolverines program, he said, “There will be announcements made concerning those things.”
Might he miss the NFL if he moves to Ann Arbor?
“Is the NFL going somewhere?” Harbaugh quipped.
The unraveling of 2014 began months ago, almost a year back, really. San Francisco lost in the NFC championship game last January at Seattle, then watched the rival Seahawks go on to win it all. Shortly after, CEO Jed York acknowledged the Cleveland Browns inquired about trading for Harbaugh.
The 49ers saw thousands of empty seats at most games this season. San Francisco was eliminated from playoff contention with a 17-7 loss at Seattle on Dec. 14, its second defeat to the rival Seahawks in an 18-day stretch.
Harbaugh guided the 49ers to three straight NFC championship games and had a Super Bowl-or-bust mentality for this season that quickly turned sour.
“Jim and I have come to the conclusion that it is in our mutual best interest to move in different directions,” York said. “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.”
The 49ers came oh so close to their sixth Super Bowl championship after the 2012 season, losing 34-31 to Harbaugh's big brother, John, and the Baltimore Ravens.
Harbaugh had a 49-22-1 overall record in four years with San Francisco, which might look to promote from within to replace him. Defensive line coach Jim Tomsula's name has been mentioned.
From his signature outfit of khaki pants and a black 49ers pullover to his signature phrases and motivational tactics, Harbaugh did things his way. And, largely, his way worked.
But not this season, when star linebacker Patrick Willis was one of several key players to go down with injuries on what had been one of the NFL's stingiest defenses.
“It's a business,” running back Frank Gore said. “I wish Coach Harbaugh the best. He's a great coach. I like how he approached the game of football. My best years, they were with him as a team.”
Harbaugh's future was in doubt all season after he didn't receive the contract extension York publicly said he hoped to work out. Neither side seemed particularly focused on doing so.
Then, when the 49ers lost at home 19-3 on Thanksgiving night to Seattle, York turned to Twitter to express his discontent with the team â€” perhaps only a preview of a relationship that couldn't be repaired.
He wrote: “Thank you #49ersfaithful for coming out strong tonight. This performance wasn't acceptable. I apologize for that.”
Harbaugh pulled off a tremendous four-year turnaround at Stanford before doing the same for a 49ers franchise that had suffered an eight-year playoff drought.
“I'm forever proud to have been a part of this,” Harbaugh said. “I feel we accomplished great things. Tremendous football.”
There was some thought York believed he could trade Harbaugh this time and receive a first-round draft pick. Nobody expected Harbaugh to agree to such a swap that would hamper a potential new team.
Harbaugh said all season he would not be fazed by the constant chatter about his fate, or by those outside the organization questioning whether he had lost the locker room.
“Some people hate you, some people love you, and most of those people don't even know you,” he told The AP in October. “You take it with a grain of salt, smile, and go about your business.”