When the San Francisco 49ers “mutually parted ways” with head coach Jim Harbaugh, it was perceived as one of the biggest mistakes of the franchise. While there were some detractors that thought Harbaugh wasn’t as good of a coach as he or others proclaimed him to be, there’s no denying he was at the very least competent.
He went to his alma mater, Michigan and took over the struggling Wolverines. Harbaugh’s hiring at Michigan was one of the most lucrative deals for a college football coach and immediately fans thought he would return the program to its glory days as a national powerhouse.
Three years later and that hasn’t exactly happened.
Harbaugh’s success began with his first head coaching job at the University of San Diego. In his first season, he took the then-lackluster Toreros to 7-4 and then back-to-back Pioneer Football League football championships. From there, he went to Stanford and built the ailing Cardinal into a football powerhouse. Four years later, he took the 49ers to three straight NFC Championship games, one which led to a controversial Super Bowl loss in the final minutes.
The 49ers team Jim Harbaugh inherited went 6-10 the year before his arrival. His first year, they finished 13-3. The stories were on how good Harbaugh was, and how much of a slam dunk hire this was for then-general manager Trent Baalke.
But there were also questions. The offensive playcalling, which was overhauled the moment Colin Kaepernick was named the starting quarterback, began to show chinks in its armor as seasons wore on. In 2012 and 2013, when the 49ers turned in a dud, there was nothing inspiring about it, though it happened rarely. Many times, the 49ers elite defense was bailing out the offense in games against more dominant teams. A majority of the picks for Harbaugh’s team were not working out as well. Most of the players starting were drafted during the Mike Singletary and Mike Nolan eras. It’s widely believed that Trent Baalke was the one making the decisions on draft day (one of the things that led to Harbaugh’s departure) and one can guess what the 49ers would look like had Harbaugh had control of the draft board instead.
Everything blew up in 2014 as the 49ers were decimated by injuries and members of the once-mighty depth they had was now a starting free-agent acquisition for another team. After going 8-8, Harbaugh was gone and the 49ers returned to being the doormat of the NFL.
Arriving at Michigan, Harbaugh took over for Brady Hoke. A coach who had a record of 31-20. The record was the result of a great first season, followed by two years hovering just over .500. Harbaugh’s first season was no different, however he failed to beat rival Michigan State, and Ohio State. The latter being labeled as a can’t-miss game now that both him and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer were in the same conference.
He has yet to beat Ohio State.
It’s now 2017. Going into Saturday, the Wolverines were 5-2 and 3rd in their own conference. They are not listed on the AP’s top 25. The highest paid coach in college football has the third best team in his conference. His coaching staff makes more than Alabama, a consistent guest to the College Football Playoff. Ranked at #7, the Wolverines lost to the unranked Michigan State—in Ann Arbor and later destroyed by #2 Penn State. As of this writing, they are giving a shellacking to Rutgers and will probably go to 6-2. The Wolverines have their own injury concerns but still this is not where fans or boosters thought the program would be in Year 3. Beating Rutgers is expected, it’s also expected that Penn State won’t run up over 500 yards of total offense against a vaunted Michigan defense either.
Three years in and Harbaugh is having a hard time simply beating the elite, let alone showing he’s a part of it.
It begs the question though: was he as good 49er fans thought? There’s no denying that Harbaugh was a competent coach, but was he as good as the label? Perhaps the 8-8 final season was less on the injury bug and more on the NFL figuring Harbaugh out. The roster he had to build was waiting for him right as he stepped onto the practice field day one. Nothing like what Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch are going through in 2017.
And before we talk about the multiple NFC Championship game appearances, remember Rex Ryan took the New York Jets to two AFC Championship games in a row. His first two seasons. With Mark Sanchez as a quarterback. The only difference, his records got progressively worse and at a faster rate. If Harbaugh stayed with the 49ers, would the same have happened?
Is Harbaugh being exposed?