There is nothing surprising to the San Francisco 49ers about Jim Harbaugh’s coaching style.
When the 49ers hired him prior after the disastrous reign of Mike Singletary, they knew they were getting a football coach who could turn their team around because he had a way of getting players to hustle, hit and play hard on an every-game basis.
He also had an eye for strategy. Harbaugh knew how to prepare his team and give them one or two plays at the proper moments that would simply take opponents by surprise and devastate them.
They knew what he was like because they were right in the back yard as he coached four years at Stanford and turned that program into a powerful one. Harbaugh also had Andrew Luck with the Cardinal, and the fact that he could help get a brilliant talent ready for an NFL career also worked in his favor.
It seemed totally logical that Harbaugh could help spin quarterbacks into pure gold. He had been a quarterback in the NFL with the Bears and Colts, and while he was not an overwhelming talent, he knew how to lead his team and produce big wins on a consistent basis.
In addition to that background, Harbaugh came from a coaching family. His father, Jack Harbaugh, had been a successful college coach (at Western Michigan and Western Kentucky), while brother John had turned out to be one of the best coaches in the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens.
So, when you turned over all the cards and the Jeopardy answer was Jim Harbaugh, the correct question in early 2011 was: “Who is going to be the NFL next successful head coach?”
The Niners also knew that Harbaugh was not a long-term answer. He might last three years, but he could last four or five. However, he was not going to last eight years or more because of his personality.
He’s awfully tough to live with on a forever kind of basis. Perhaps it’s the chip on his shoulder that has been there since he was a high school player. Perhaps it’s because he comes from a coaching family where the lesson was that there’s always something more to be done to win a football game. Perhaps there’s another reason. Perhaps he’s simply too abrasive for his bosses, assistants and players to embrace after a period of time.
Nothing is ever good enough for Harbaugh, and he always wants more. That’s not the case with his much more even-keeled brother, who is loved by his players and held in relatively high esteem by his bosses.
Jim Harbaugh always wants changes and always wants something new. He gave hints of this at Stanford, and he always was getting something new because college is such a transient place. Freshmen turn into sophomores, juniors turn into seniors. The planned obsolescence of each player seemed to work well with Harbaugh’s mindset. He knew he had the best toy under the Christmas Tree in Luck, and he was able to nurture and enjoy him for four years. But he was able to trade in the rest of his toys for new ones on a consistent basis.
It’s similar in the NFL, where players have to earn their position each year, but the same players get to hang around for years and years if they are good enough. That’s not the best situation for Harbaugh, because he wants each of his players to learn more and show greater capability every year.
That’s a nice theory, but there really aren’t a lot of players who can change their repertoire very dramatically from one year to the next. Most players find their level and stick to it as long as they can. There’s not a lot of steady improvement in the NFL.
So that makes life difficult for Harbaugh at the professional level, and he doesn’t attempt to hide that agitation from his players or assistants.
He also doesn’t demonstrate an adult attitude when working with his superiors. He rubs them the wrong way and that’s why they would have traded him to Cleveland last offseason if they could have worked the deal, and that’s why he’s almost certainly not coming back next season in San Francisco.
He’s just too difficult for all parties to live with.
It’s not because he can’t coach. He has been to the NFC Championship game each of the last three seasons. While the 2014 season has moved in fits and starts, it would not be a surprise if the Niners (5-4-0) figured out a way to make it back to the playoffs again.
Unless it comes with a Super Bowl appearance, it won’t be enough to keep Harbaugh on the job. He’s too edgy, to prickly and too uncomfortable.
He can coach like few others in the league, but he’s too nasty to live with.
The 49ers believe that it’s just not worth it, and that’s why he’ll be an ex-49ers coach shortly after the season ends in San Francisco.