So Jim Harbaugh, who restored the 49ers almost to what they used to be, turns out to be fanatical. Which of course, those who played for him, such as the now-outraged Alex Boone, didn't dare mention while it mattered — meaning while they were playing for him.
Coaching football never has been equated to raising zinnias or marigolds. More like raising Cain. Of the great Vince Lombardi, who led the Green Bay Packers to five NFL championships, his defensive tackle Henry Jordan once said, “He treats us all the same — like dogs.”
In his four seasons as Niners coach, Harbaugh probably did the same. Yet, you didn't hear anybody in uniform speak out publicly. We knew the front-office folks didn't like him, which was understandable because Harbaugh was in control when they wanted to be.
Harbaugh was hired because he won football games wherever he went. He didn't care about winning friends. They didn't care either until it was too late. Then Jed York, the Niners' CEO, was left to tweeting out apologies.
Boone, the guard, waited until Harbaugh was dispatched by the Niners at the end of the 2014 season. He told HBO's “Real Sports” that Harbaugh was remarkable at providing the “initial boom” which helped transform ne'er-do-wells into champions — the Niners hadn't been in the playoffs for eight seasons until the coach arrived in 2011 — but then he “pushed guys too far.”
That's what coaches always do. “Football,” Lombardi said, “is a game for mad men. We're all mad.” But that's different from “criminally insane,” which is how Boone described Harbaugh.
The word for Harbaugh is “obsessed.” He and brother, John, head man of the Baltimore Ravens — who beat Jim and the Niners in Super Bowl LVII, and that still stings down Santa Clara way — were raised by a coaching father, Jack, who demanded his boys approach each day with “an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.”
Niners management, York and general manager Trent Baalke, surely heard how Jim Harbaugh kept pestering people, pushing them if you will, to where they wanted to jump off a cliff — or shove him over one.
Niners executives were embarrassed, but here was the guy they had hired from Stanford for millions. In two years, he coached them to the most important game of any NFL season. They had to grind their teeth in private while, in effect, Harbaugh ground their noses into the turf.
Other humans are not constructed like Jim Harbaugh. Even at Division III University of San Diego, his first head-coaching job, Harbaugh was a nuisance. “But the pieces of the personality that tire you out,” Ky Snyder, the USD athletic director once said, “are the same ones which make him so successful.”
Harbaugh led a USD team to the playoffs. He took a 1-11 Stanford team and made it a 12-1 Stanford team. He took the mediocre 49ers and made them a Super Bowl team. Then, a slip, and the knives were out.
“I think he just pushed guys too far,” was one of the Boone observations on the HBO show. “He wanted too much, demanded too much, expected too much. We got to go out and do this.”
Truth is, they do have to do it. Or management does it to the coach, and as the talk all last season predicted, the Niners did it to Harbaugh, fired him. That “mutually agreed to part ways” comment by the 49ers was ridiculous, as he explained after a time.
“It must be true,” Harbaugh told HBO's Andrea Kremer. “Sometimes I'd wear out my welcome.” Asked what that meant, Harbaugh answered, “They just don't want to be around you after a while.”
Alex Boone no longer will be around Jim Harbaugh. You hope he's happy.