Steph: So Sam, the hammer finally came down. Despite a winning record, rumors have proven true. The San Francisco 49ers and Jim Harbaugh have decided to part ways. We've discussed the similarities with the Golden State Warriors firing Mark Jackson. Despite Jackson bring life back to a team, Warriors execs seemed hell bent on moving on. It seems to me, anything short of a championship is not enough to overcome a personality conflict. What are your thoughts? What similarities do you see?
Sam: There are definitely similarities. Like Harbaugh, Jackson wanted an extension. The Warriors brass did not give him one for various reasons. Initially, it appeared Jackson refused the coaching and tactical suggestions made by upper management. Management felt some players were not used properly or prepared well, and there were issues with X's and O's. Sure, they won 50 games and no Warriors coach had done it in 20 years. However, is it a fair comparison to measure his results to some of the rosters (devoid of talent) over the last two decades? In many ways people over-glorified what Jackson did because fans hadn't seen a competent professional basketball in the Bay Area for so long. Seeing how things are going under Kerr, it's hard to disagree.
Judging by the press conference, Baalke and York seem to think this roster has more talent than their record shows. From a talent standpoint, are the 2014 49ers better or worse than the teams that went roughly 8-8 under Singletary and Nolan? Even if a team performs badly for several years prior, it doesn't mean a coach is necessarily doing a good job with his current group.
Harbaugh's record is more impressive than Jackson's, but it's hard to not notice the decline. Did Harbaugh's voice run dry? Was he not developing players or running the correct schemes, like Warriors management saw with Jackson?
Steph: There were so many appalling things in the pre-Harbaugh era. Nolan's best record was 7-9 and Singletary's best season was 8-8. That stench still resonates with fans.
It is an interesting notion 49ers fans finally saw the semblance of a competent football team in nearly a decade. And, perhaps most of us have credited that success solely to Harbaugh. I suspect part of that rests on the transformation of Alex Smith. 49ers fans saw a different player under the tutelage of Harbaugh.
Even with the media reports of Harbaugh's brassy personality, players have gone out of their way in support of him. As you point out, Jackson seemed to reach the players as well. I agree management believes this team is capable of more.
I know a few people in the loop. Some players feel they have not been challenged enough by Harbaugh or the schemes are not playing to their strengths. I do not believe Harbaugh ever "lost the locker room," but several comments to me indicate only Colin Kaepernick was behind Harbaugh 100%. The players respect Harbaugh, but many concluded he was not the man to get them there.
Steph Curry, the Warriors star player, defended Jackson in the same way. But, the Warriors controversial shake-up sparked success. Maybe 49ers management feels another coach can develop the team in the same way. Management has to be looking at is Harbaugh's coaching staff and coordinators. It will be telling who keeps their job in the next few days and who does not.
Sam: That's where the next hire becomes interesting. It is working for the Warriors, but there are also other circumstances. In the Warriors case, there were tangible mistakes. There were multiple reports the team rarely practiced. Jackson was known for wanting to "rest" his players so they'd be fresh in games. While this isn't an uncommon practice, it also would manifest itself in the team being unprepared and dropping many winnable games (especially at home). This is the reason there was in-fighting among coaches (which led to the inevitable demotion of first year assistant Brian Scalabrine to the d-league). There was a basic lack of execution and level of dysfunction which haunted the Warriors all season.
I don't think anyone ever questioned Harbaugh's work ethic. Wasn't it that his approach wore on players after a while?
Steph: Harbaugh works the players hard. According to some, he tightened his grip this year and some voiced concern to management. It is part of who Harbaugh is, a vicious competitor and naturally, that will wear on almost anyone. I have read at the University of San Diego, he ran hills with the players, pushing through his own vomit. To some, that is a crazed unsustainable way of winning. He often likens football to the workplace or even war. He seems eat and breathe football and I don't think he's about making friends. But, what he does give? Unfailing support and belief. Where others analyze or criticize players, Harbaugh is their number one fan.
To me, his loyalty extends to a fault to his coordinators and his assistant coaches. And, when things start to fail, I wonder if his approach can continue to inspire.
Sam: Jackson's gift was instilling confidence in players, he got the Warriors to punch above their weight. But, the crux of the issues with Jackson and Warriors management was him not running the team the way they wanted. On top of disagreements over tactics, Jackson wasn't well liked outside the locker room. He wanted to insulate his players and create an "us" vs. "them" mentality. Jackson believed in total autonomy over his team. His contract allowed him that too. That can be effective, but it can also limit a teams total growth. As an example, he was not open to suggestions on schemes from upper management. When your boss hires Jerry West and you won't consider his ideas, you better be 100% right.
My feelings on Jackson have always been, he was great for getting the Warriors to a certain point, but to take that next step to elite contention, he either needed to evolve or they needed a new coach.
It differs with the 49ers. Harbaugh did get the 49ers to the Super Bowl, within inches of winning it. I don't think you can outright compare them there. But, you cannot ignore the 49ers are the perennial bridesmaid. It's very easy to blast Niner brass for firing a coach who won 49 games over 4 years. But was it wrong? I'm not sure how one can continually blame his assistants and not him. There are two ways to look at it; bad luck season or his voice and ideas ran out. Why do you think the 49er management choose the former? Do you think Harbaugh was willing to listen to Baalke or scouts?
Steph: Seth Wickersham stated management wanted to project a cleaner image, a "win with class" mantra that is repeated ad nauseam. According to Wickersham, the front office came to Harbaugh with suggestions about player appearance. Instead of being gentle with the players and offering discreet suggestions, Harbaugh abruptly told the players: "Oh, management doesn't think you're dressed up enough, so try to dress nicer."
Without knowing Harbaugh personally, it is hard to decipher why he approaches things the way he does. I think he created the us (team) versus them (management) you note with Jackson. I can see why management would be frustrated by the way Harbaugh handles things. He is an interesting character.
Whether it is dress suggestions or offensive suggestions, it seems Harbaugh compartmentalizes his job. He has said on multiple occasions he doesn't want more power. Few believe that. I do.
He does not want the management headaches, but expects the execs to stay out of his coaching compartment. Greg Roman has been under a lot of criticisms from management. Players also questioned schemes privately and publicly. Harbaugh's loyalty to Roman may have been his downfall, but in the end -- I think Harbaugh believed in that offensive scheme. He is a very principled person, so he had to on board with Roman's ideas. Moreover, I believe he felt the OC was his responsibility, not the execs decision.
Fans forget even the best of teams will never get to the Super Bowl. Talent takes you further, but things have to go right and in the right sequence to even get there. And, I am not one to complain about calls, but if a few were made differently -- I can think of three in each season that could have swung the odds tremendously in the 49ers favor. So, even with talent, sometimes it means being on the right side of a little luck. Harbaugh has gotten the team to great positions, more than any coach in that given period of time.
So, I believe it came down to his personality. At the first sign of failure management took the shot, but they had been aiming at Harbaugh all along. The year-long leaks seem to indicate the same, preparing fans for the inevitable.
Sam: And ultimately, the personality dispute was at the crux of the Jackson-Warriors feud. Call it philosophical differences or whatever, at end of day they had different visions for how they wanted the team coached and the organization ran.
One major difference between the two situation is leaks. Warriors certainly had their share of issues with stories leaking last season. However, none of it was attributed to management. Most felt it was linked to disgruntled assistants who were let go.
In the 49ers case, the local media seemed convinced it was York-Baalke leaking to the national media. My question on that would be, what is the gain? Undermining your team so you tank a season? Your first season in a new stadium? Doesn't add up.
Steph: Jed York tweets out on Thanksgiving his displeasure of the product on the field as "unacceptable." As a business person, it would have been more advantageous to take it up with the coach behind closed doors. Many fans, including myself, took that tweet as disrespectful to Harbaugh.
And, these stories do not just come out of thin air. I do not believe the media completely fabricated the story that management is fed up with Harbaugh's antics. Now that Harbaugh has been relieved of his duties, even if York did not leak the information himself -- his office did. At the very least, York and the other execs could not keep their feelings of Harbaugh discreet.
Several months ago, I heard someone tell Jed York the rumors surrounding Harbaugh seemed ridiculous, because "Jim was such a great coach." York quipped, "A great coach would've won that Super Bowl."
York recently stated his standard is winning a Super Bowl every year. Apparently then, the San Francisco 49ers have only had 5 successful seasons in history? And, the other 63 years were unsuccessful? He is nothing more than a delusional fan.
Sam: Perhaps he is. Perhaps there is some validity in the statement. At the very least, perhaps a different voice or approach can get better results. Everyone wants the 20+ year coach like Greg Popovich, but reality is most coaches have a short shelf life and are easier to replace than an entire roster.
Where does Baalke and Paraag Marathe fit into this?
Steph: It is hard to say. Baalke is a likable guy and while he has missed on some drafts, he has nailed others. Given the reports of Harbaugh's grating personality and visible frustrations with coming that close and not winning it all, I can see Baalke offering up suggestions to Harbaugh and those suggestions (namely Greg Roman) falling on deaf ears.
If Baalke wanted to change the offensive coordinator and York agreed, I can see York siding with Baalke from a football standpoint. York is not a football guy and Baalke seems to have the his full backing. If this was indeed the sticking point, as I suspect it is, I can see why the 49ers decided to move on from Harbaugh.
Paraag is York's guy, and while he has plenty of influence in a contract negotiation and cap standpoint, he has moved more to the business side. He is kind of a mystery option in all of this drama.
Sam: Interesting. It is obvious the leaks were from SF, and you have to look at everyone - not just Jed York.
We agree there are similarities in what led to conflict. Both teams managements did not like their coaches stubbornness. This isn't necessarily uncommon, but York's press conference is a stark difference to how the Warriors handled the Jackson dismissal.
Lacob, blunt as always, laid it out. It was unpopular, but it was clear. He cited Jackson's inability to manage sideways and upwards (code for didn't work well with management). Later, more details came out. The crux is Lacob was looking for a coach who could bring consensus throughout all basketball operations. Consensus among assistants, scouts, and others.
Jackson wanted full control over his locker room with little to no input from others. You can disagree but with the amount of money invested in a cutting edge analytics department, you can't fault an owner for wanting his coach to take advantage of all the resources.
Listening to York's press conference, I still have no clue what he wants. Philosophical differences is vague. And throwing all the 49ers off the field troubles on Harbaugh was confusing.
At least, right or wrong, Lacob laid out a clear vision. I have zero idea what York, Baalke or what the 49ers organization stands for. Shed some light here. As an outsider, Baalke and York seem abrasive, hidden, and almost political.
Steph: That is the most confusing part. I was not against Harbaugh leaving if it was for the good of the team, but if 49ers fired the winningest coach in the NFL -- fans deserved a reason. We were spoon fed vague, canned responses like "mutual parting of ways" and "winning with class". What does that even mean? And, if the 49ers aren't winning with class, shouldn't Baalke be held to the same account?
Lacob gave Warriors fans a clear direction and while unpopular at the time, they admitted they were firing Jackson and why. 49ers fans did not get that.
Sam: That's why I ultimately can't say they are that similar. Yes, both coaches were unhappy with their lack of extension. Yes, both coaches re-invigorated the franchise. Yes, both coaches dealt with odd leaks and dysfunction near the end. But, I could argue that's relatively common before a coach is released.
In Jackson's case, I can point to tangible basketball reasons of underachieving. I can point to concrete examples of mismanagement. I can point to reasons why a change would ultimately serve the franchise better. Can you do the same with the 49ers?
Harbaugh's achieved a level of success well beyond Jackson. While his last season was a disappointment, I still struggle to see how York could attribute all the fault to Harbaugh - with several player arrests (players Baalke drafted), injuries and leaks that had to adversely affect the locker room. Or, did he simply just run his course? His style of management, as you described, definitely sounds like the type of coach who wears on players. Those guys tend to be 2-4 year coaches, turning teams before they eventually burn all equity.
One thing I do know, the way Baalke and York have handled this publicly instills zero faith.
Steph: There are differences, as you describe. Bottom line is anything short of a championship for York is considered unsuccessful. I understand it should be the ultimate goal, but instilling a winning culture is something you cannot measure.
Bill Walsh (who York mentioned several times over the past few days) said he wanted to establish a near-permanent "base camp" near the summit, consistently close to the top. Walsh established a high standard, but not an unattainable one. He even stated, "No leader can control the outcome of the contest or competition, but you can control how you prepare for it." Walsh knew there would be unforeseen events, e.g., calls or injuries that could change the trajectory of a game and he prepared for contingencies. But, his goal was consistency not championships. Fortunately, championships came when the team was consistent.
Unlike the Warriors, who made a change for the better, I think York and the 49ers have made a mistake. I do not see a glaring Steve Kerr, as it were, to save this franchise. Both Bay Area NFL teams need head coaches. Which is more attractive to coaching candidates? With the 49ers execs handling this so poorly, I do not know. It is amazing. Last year at this time, the Raiders were in disarray and the 49ers were preparing for a Super Bowl run.
The 49ers have a talented team. And, I hope the team can rise from the muck of this season, but I am frustrated by the ownership and York's lack of real leadership in handling this situation.
I will keep my fingers crossed.
Author's Credit: Thanks to Warriors World Contributor, Sam Esfandiari. You can follow him on twitter @samesfandiari.