Joe-Pinions: Sports

8 Jan 2011 – Chasing Harbaugh Sparks Memories of Walsh

Posted in Football (NFL) by txtmstrjoe on 08/01/2011

It’s very hard to be a San Francisco 49ers fan.

Especially these days.

The last few years, the better part of a decade in fact, have seen the once-proud and mighty franchise shrouded in a Bay Area fog.  Seasons of not making the NFL playoffs, of not even posting a record above .500, became not the aberration they used to be in the halcyon days, but a year-in, year-out reality.

It used to be that the 49ers were THE model professional sports franchise.  From the time Bill Walsh became the team’s leader as head coach and de facto general manager in 1979 until the onset of the 2000s, the Niners developed a reputation for doing things with class and panache, whether it was on the football field or off it.

On the field, Coach Walsh’s so-called West Coast offense revolutionized offensive football.  The system (it is much more than just a style of offensive football; indeed, Coach Walsh always said it was a complete philosophy of how to run a football team down to the tiniest details) made several of its players Hall of Famers and granted Walsh himself that hallowed status, the ultimate honor in professional football.  Off the field, the team’s owner, Eddie DeBartolo, Jr., spared no expense in ensuring the 49ers were competitive year after year:  DeBartolo modernized his team’s headquarters and equipped it with every amenity required by both the players and the coaches; he provided his team with a chartered jet and treated everybody in the organization with dignity, respect, and class.

People in football all used to want to be associated with the 49ers.  The 49ers were a golden team, a winning organization whether or not they actually won the Super Bowl.

Then Mr. DeBartolo found himself somehow implicated in a gambling scandal in the late 1990s, and he was forced to surrender ownership rights to the team to his sister and his brother-in-law, Denise and John York, respectively.  When the Yorks took over, for whatever reason they began to purge the organization of the elements that built the 49er empire.  Perhaps they simply wanted to completely disassociate themselves from Mr. DeBartolo.

Gone went people like John McVay (a key personnel boffin and a Walsh collaborator), head coach Steve Mariucci (an indirect disciple of Bill Walsh by way of association with Mike Holmgren, one of Walsh’s top assistants in the mid-to-late 1980s, and a WCO-principled coach), and Walsh himself (a former team Vice President, General Manager, and consultant in the late 1990s-early 2000s).  The West Coast offense itself was scrapped.

2002, the last year of Mariucci’s tenure with the 49ers, was the last time the team made the playoffs.  From then on, coached by the likes of Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan, and Mike Singletary, the 49ers decayed rapidly and shockingly on the field.  They quickly lost their identity, and any connection to the great teams in the 49ers’ glorious past were restricted only to the fact that they wore the same red and gold colors.  Off the field, through a series of baffling and illogical moves by the front office, the team lost much of its golden sheen and polish.

The team hired Erickson despite the fact that his preferred offensive system, the spread offense, required players with different skill sets than what the 49ers’ roster were good in, as well as a less-than-optimal playing surface at Candlestick Park.  After Erickson’s inevitable failure, they followed up with Mike Nolan, whose coaching credentials were defined mostly by his successful stint as the Baltimore Ravens’ defensive coordinator.  Unfortunately, Mike Nolan was yet another step further away from the ways of Walsh and DeBartolo; by the time Mike Singletary took the helm tried his best, and failed because of his limitations as a game strategist and tactician, the quicksand of mediocrity had a firm hold on the 49ers, and the team and the hopes of its most ardent fans, the 49er Faithful, were in real danger of going under.

Enter Jim Harbaugh.

Jim Harbaugh played fifteen years in the NFL as a quarterback.  I remember him best as the Indianapolis Colts’ last quarterback before Peyton Manning was drafted.  I still have a very vivid memory of him throwing up that Hail Mary pass into the right rear corner of the end zone in 1996, trying to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers for the right to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XXX.  That final pass fell incomplete, but that AFC Championship game was one of the best I’d seen, and it definitely left an impression on me.

Harbaugh was an NFL quarterback until the end of 2001; somewhat amazingly, even during his active playing career, he somehow found the time to be an unpaid coach’s assistant (offensive consultant) under his father, Jack Harbaugh, who was the head coach of Western Kentucky University‘s football team.  After his playing career was over, he served as the Oakland Raiders‘ quarterback coach from 2002-2003, where he handled Rich Gannon (another quarterback I admire) during Gannon’s MVP season (2002).  The University of San Diego came calling next, and in his three seasons there the school went 7-4, 11-1, and 11-1.

In late 2006, Stanford came calling.  Under Harbaugh’s tutelage, the Cardinal improved steadily over four years.  From 2007 through 2010, Stanford finished with records of 4-8, 5-7, 8-5, and 12-1.

In light of the fact that Stanford has perhaps the Pac-10’s highest academic standards, Harbaugh’s record is even more amazing.  What I mean by this is that, compared to schools like USC or Oregon, or even regional rival Cal Berkeley, Stanford is handicapped by its stringent academic requirements in its recruitment of student athletes for their football team.  In my opinion, and with all due respect to student athletes, it’s simply very difficult to find a lot of great football players who are also simultaneously able to meet Stanford’s academic standards.  My point is that it would require an exceptional coach to be able to win, and win big, at Stanford.  The 2010 season’s 12-1 record, with the only defeat coming against fellow Pac-10 school Oregon, is exceptional and is particularly hugely impressive.

Stanford’s victory in the 2011 Orange Bowl put Jim Harbaugh’s name on everyone’s lips, particularly those teams, both in college and in the pros, looking for an upgrade at head coach.  His achievements as Stanford’s head coach made him the hottest coaching prospect in recent memory.

His alma mater, Michigan, sought his services (even before firing their erstwhile head coach, Rich Rodriguez).

The Miami Dolphins chased after him with a frankly insane financial offer (rumored to be around $8 million per year, which would have made Harbaugh the highest-paid head coach in the NFL).

The Denver Broncos, through Stanford alumnus and NFL great John Elway, expressed their interest.

Stanford was also apparently prepared to match some of the salary offers put forward by Harbaugh’s suitors.

But the San Francisco 49ers were the first team Harbaugh actually met with at significant length, spending most of 5 January 2011 with new team CEO Jed York (son of John York and Denise DeBartolo York, nephew of Eddie DeBartolo, Jr.) and newly-hired 49er GM Trent Baalke.

From the time of that meeting through the following day, the so-called Harbaugh Sweepstakes dominated the Bay Area sports media coverage and arguably overshadowed some of the hype for this weekend’s first week of the 2010-2011 NFL playoffs.  Conflicting reports spread through the internet:  Harbaugh was said likely to sign with the 49ers; Harbaugh wowed by the Miami Dolphins and was likely to sign as their head coach; Harbaugh was intrigued by the possibility of staying in Stanford, especially since Andrew Luck, his quarterback, had announced his decision to stay in school and forgo the upcoming NFL Draft in the spring.  The constant stream of news snippets – which, in retrospect, were really nothing more than rumors and conjecture – had people invested in the story in a dizzy tizzy.  Nobody knew which stories were true, and which were outright lies.

Around noon on 7 January 2011, though, reports of the San Francisco 49ers having sealed the deal with Coach Harbaugh came through; a follow-up report of the team holding a 3:30PM PST press conference all but confirmed that the 49ers had won the chase for Harbaugh’s signature.

The press conference was highlighted by a few things:  Jed York let his two newest employees take all the limelight; Jim Harbaugh stated his reverence for Coach Walsh; Trent Baalke, like many good GMs, is able to answer a question he doesn’t particularly want to answer without showing his cards (a great trait, in my opinion); Harbaugh will be re-installing the West Coast offense “in the birthplace of the West Coast offense” (much to my delight, I have to say); the local Bay Area media seems to represent the 49er Faithful, asking interesting questions that seem relevant to the San Francisco 49ers and the team’s fan base.

The Harbaugh Sweepstakes were a bit exhausting for me, to be perfectly honest.  I’ve tweeted (and said to friends and family) that I really shouldn’t be so emotional about the 49ers; after all, I’m really only just a fan, nothing more (even if I probably am obsessive about the 49ers and their history to a more extreme degree than most other fans).  I don’t own the team; I cannot exert any real influence on how the team is run.  I can only cheer.  I can only criticize and evaluate and analyze.  I can only cry in anguish when the team does poorly than it should, and I can only weep in joy when the team does as well as we hope it can.

Now that Jim Harbaugh is part of the 49er family, we can say the easy part of the job is done.  The team again now have a head coach with a real sense of and a true respect for the team’s rich history and legacy and its place in football.  They have a General Manager who seems to be a good fit with the head coach; their successful collaboration over the coming years is one of the keys towards ensuring the hard part of the job likewise gets completed.  Together they will rebuild the team according to their design and vision; as Trent Baalke said himself, their mandate is to restore the winning culture at the 49ers.

Jim Harbaugh, whether by accident or by design, now has his feet set firmly on the same path as Bill Walsh’s were in 1979.  He has graduated from the college ranks at Stanford and now holds in his hands the destiny of a pro football franchise desperate to raise itself from the mire of mediocrity.

Will Jim Harbaugh be able to emulate the late, great Bill Walsh?  Will the man who has overseen several success stories in his career path as a football player and coach be able to use his Midas touch and turn the 49ers into a golden franchise again?

This 49ers fan can only hope and dream.

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2 Responses

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  1. Tim said, on 10/01/2011 at 10:05

    Very thorough and well put-together, Joe. I too am more excited by the appointment of a man with zero NFL head coaching experience than I have any right to be.

    To hear Harbaugh talk of his respect for Walsh and his desire to reinstall the West Coast offense sends a shiver of excitement down my spine. Most of the basic components are there – a WR with outstanding hands in Michael Crabtree, a TE who is a threat all over the field in Vernon Davis, and one of the league’s best all-purpose backs in Frank Gore. All that is missing is an intelligent QB, and for a line which mixes veteran talent with inexperience to gel.

    It will be fascinating to see how Harbaugh assembles his senior assistants and what direction he and Baalke take the needed squad revamp in. An experienced hand via free agency at QB perhaps, who can execute the complexities of the West Coast offense? A backup and long-term successor for Gore via the draft? Playmakers on defense who can rush the passer and provide blanket coverage?

    Oh, the possibilities! I’m actually quite excited for the 2011 season already. It’s too much to expect an instant turnaround – indeed, I suspect we may go backwards before we go forwards – but it will be a fascinating offseason, that’s for sure.

    • txtmstrjoe said, on 10/01/2011 at 10:54

      Thanks for the kind words, Tim. 🙂 (LOVED your Manning piece too, by the way.)

      The 49ers certainly have a long laundry list of parts they need to acquire before they become respectable again, much less a winning NFL franchise. I’m prepared to give them a couple of seasons to get things right; by no means am I expecting an instant turnaround. It’s unlikely to find quick fixes in the modern NFL. So yes, I agree that we may have to take one step back to leapfrog two or three or four forwards.

      Even Walsh took three years before things came right, after all.

      Thanks again for the kind words! 🙂


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