Following the San Francisco 49ers and Jim Harbaugh's agreement to part ways, there seems to be many football fans who are left wondering how a coach of his caliber could be shown the door. Despite guiding the 49ers to three NFC Championship games in four seasons and one Super Bowl appearance, Harbaugh will move back to the college ranks when he assumes control of a Michigan Wolverines team that has been floundering in the Big 10. Even before announcing his decision to accept the job at Michigan, there were many 49ers fans who were upset that the team seemingly had no reservations about letting him go.
Despite all his success, Jim Harbaugh's presence on the 49ers sidelines did not mesh with the brass of the front office and he also suffered from his inability to do what became routine for him in college while he was the head man at Stanford. He was unable to best Pete Carroll and his Seattle Seahawks, which ultimately played a role in his departure along with the speculation that he had also lost control over the team. His abrasive personality aside, Harbaugh has been able to produce results in San Francisco that will not make it easy for any coach that follows his footsteps to duplicate.
There are many reasons the 49ers will more than likely miss Jim Harbaugh next year. From his persona and seriousness on the sidelines, to his khaki pants and colorful expressions that come out in the press, he has been quite the character in San Francisco. Overshadowed by his antics, that make it hard to get along with him, are his achievements as a head coach. How many head coaches that were hired this off-season seem like better options than Harbaugh? He'll be a tough act to follow. The following are the top 10 reasons why the 49ers will end up missing Jim Harbaugh as he embarks on his journey to turn the Michigan program around.
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10 He Says Colorful Things
The San Francisco press is going to miss Jim Harbaugh's many colorful expressions as well as his ability to say what's on his mind, even if it is hard to understand at times. Who can forget his famous line, "I think its just a lot of gobble, gobble turkey"? Harbaugh was defending his quarterback at the time, Alex Smith, and he must have been in a Thanksgiving mood with his timing. He has always been willing to provide material for the local media to pass onto fans, even though it has often been hard to understand what he is really saying.
When Harbaugh was the head coach at Stanford and Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll was at USC, Harbaugh famously opened his mouth about Carroll leaving the USC program the following year. Harbaugh pulled that one from his khakis and then followed that up by praising USC by calling them not only the best team in the country, but the best team in the history of college football as well. Harbaugh has always been willing to say what is on his mind, throw some meat to the lions, support his players and even put a quirky spin on any loss or uninspiring performance. His gift of being direct, but cryptic and hard to follow will be missed in his role of 49ers spokesman.
9 He is Competitive
Throughout his playing career, Jim Harbaugh earned the nickname of "Captain Comeback" for his competitive fire, tenacity and ability to bring his teams back from the clutches of defeat. He brings his gritty attitude as a player and instills the same competitive fire in any team he has ever coached. During his time at Stanford, Harbaugh's competitive nature was never more evident than in his feud with former USC coach Pete Carroll, who remained his arch-rival in the NFL. He doesn't like to lose to his coaching rivals.
In 2009, Carroll and USC were a 41-point favorite over Harbaugh and the Cardinal. In one of college football's most historic upsets, the Cardinal won the game 24-23 to put a damper on USC's season and put an end to their no.1 ranking. Harbaugh had a way of getting his underdog Stanford teams to rise up to beat the PAC-10 bully, USC, running up the score with a 55-21 victory in 2009. In the NFL, he almost got into a fight with Jim Schwartz, then the head coach of the Detroit Lions, when they met for a postgame handshake. Harbaugh doesn't care about making friends and expects his players to play with the same passion and disregard for opponents as he has. Although Carroll has gotten the best of him in the NFC West, it will no longer be possible to tell if this trend was going to last.
8 Sweaters and Khakis
Jim Harbaugh is simple, like Mike Tyson walking into a ring, and does not care what people think about the way he might dress. Many jokes have been made about his khaki pants with sweaters or sweatshirts that seem to be all he ever wears. Although he is far from overweight and still has a somewhat youthful appearance, Harbaugh certainly does his best to make sure he will never be labeled as a "fashionista". His basic appearance goes well with his coaching style that emphasizes smash mouth football and attacking opponents with a ground game that includes offensive linemen that can move and running backs who can hit the hole with a full head of steam.
For his basic understated appearance, Harbaugh probably helped widen the 49ers fan base by attracting more fans from the rugged East Bay. The 49ers organization has always been considered a model for the rest of the league, but the loss of Harbaugh and his no-nonsense khaki pants approach to football will be sorely missed. Harbaugh was a breath of fresh air in an organization that has so often had a very mechanical approach to playing and achieving success. He brought more emotion, dislike of officials and cockiness to the team and his khaki pants seemed to symbolize all the positive traits he brought to the team.
7 He Believes in Running the Football
Harbaugh has always believed in running the football and brought a power running game to Stanford and San Francisco as well. He more than likely developed this belief in a strong ground game when he was a young signal caller for Bo Schembechler at the University of Michigam. Although the 49ers ground game was somewhat inconsistent in 2014, rushers still averaged 4.6 yards per carry with an average of 137.6 yards per game. With Colin Kaepernick's struggles, the 49ers offense will still need to emphasize the ground game.
The 49ers have a history of running a West Coast offensive attack where running can be more of a deception than by design. Once Harbaugh came on board, running the football seemed to be more of a staple of the offense. In 2014, Harbaugh stood by and watched the development of Colin Kaepernick take a little more precedence over the running game, but make no mistake about it, Harbaugh loves the ground game. This formula of power running that sets up the passing game has always been accompanied by a stout defense that can get the offense back on the field. These two characteristics have become a trademark of Harbaugh coached teams.
6 He Is Tough
Jim Harbaugh is tough and his actions and mannerisms are a constant reminder that he has been through many battles before. He has always been able to impart a mental toughness on his team wherever he has coached. This has been reinforced by solid defensive play with good tackling and a solid rushing attack that has enabled Harbaugh coached teams to control the clock and physically beat up opponents who fail to compete at the line of scrimmage. The tone is set by Harbaugh at training camp and in the locker room. His toughness will be missed next season.
Harbaugh has spent a career convincing players that have often been considered to be overachievers, that they can play at a high level against the best players in the league. He achieved success at Stanford by adding an edge or attitude to an academic oriented Cardinal team. He did the same at San Francisco by developing linemen on both sides of the ball that always seem to do a little more than hold their own, despite often being paid less than comparable players throughout the league. Harbaugh helped the 49ers get tough in the trenches and develop the attitude that has often helped them win close games.
5 He Has a Wealth of NFL Experience
Jim Harbaugh might have come into the league with no previous NFL head coaching experience, but he has the experience of playing quarterback for four different teams and even more different offensive schemes. Harbaugh played for the legendary Bo Schembechler at Michigan to begin his career and also Mike Ditka, Ted Marchibroda, Lindy Infante and more in the NFL. He has been around his share of offenses and great defenses and knows how they can complement one another.
Being a quarterback who made the most of his abilities, Harbaugh had to be good at making consistent reads. Despite his relative lack of NFL coaching experience, Harbaugh has been good at developing game plans that shut down key players on the opposing teams or highlight the right players offensively that he thinks might have an advantage given the opponent's defensive scheme. In either case, Harbaugh's 14-year NFL career has given him invaluable experience to enable him to be more of an effective coach at the highest level of the NFL. The 49ers will miss having this experience to draw upon when it comes time to making game plans and critical game-time decisions.
4 He Turns Organizations Around
Jim Harbaugh has been a master at turning programs around. He did it at his first job at the University of San Diego where he took a team that finished 7-4 during his inaugural season to two consecutive 11-1 seasons and Pioneer League titles in his final two seasons at the school. He moved on to Stanford where he finished with a 4-8 season in his first year and ended up with a 12-1 record and top 10 ranking (no.4) in the polls at the season's end of his final year in Palo Alto. He did the same for the San Francisco 49ers when he coached the team to the NFC Championship game in his very first year.
Harbaugh has been able to fix programs and has left the 49ers with quite some work to do to reach that level again. The 8-8 finish the 49ers had in 2014 might have just been a bump in the road, but now it will be impossible to tell. If anyone could rally the 49ers from the fallout from such a lackluster season, it would seem like Harbaugh would've been the man for the job. Now that the team really needs Harbaugh's expertise to right the ship, ownership has decided his abrasive personality has come with too much of a cost.
3 He Develops Players
Much has been said about the lack of development in Colin Kaepernick during the 2014 season, but little has been said about the 49ers losses on defense and lack of consistency on the offensive line. By season's end, Harbaugh and his staff developed three young linebackers on defense, Aaron Lynch, Michael Willhoite and Chris Borland. Harbaugh has done the same with quarterbacks, first developing Josh Johnson at USD and then parlaying that experience to develop Andrew Luck at Stanford. On the 49ers, Harbaugh took Alex Smith from a quarterback with a career best 82.1 passer rating in his sixth year in the NFL to a 104.1 rating a couple of years later in 2012.
Smith passed for over 3,000 yards (3,144) for the first time in his career under the direction of Jim Harbaugh in the 2011 season. He finished that year with 17 touchdown passes against only 5 interceptions. In 2012, he was doing even better, completing 70.2% of his passes for 1,737 yards in only 10 games, before losing his job to Colin Kaepernick. Although Kaepernick has struggled by most accounts, his statistics are not so far off his previous bests. It is no longer possible to tell if another year of working with Harbaugh would be enough to help improve Kaepernick's game.
2 He's a Winner
Despite all that has been said about Jim Harbaugh, there is no denying his ability to produce results. Harbaugh was 29-6 at the University of San Diego in his first gig and then took an average Stanford team to finish with a 29-21 record during four years of his work. His amazing record of 44-19-1 with the 49ers is even more incredible. He guided the Cardinal to an Orange Bowl appearance in 2010 and followed that up with three consecutive trips to the NFC Championship game with the 49ers from 2011-2013. Harbaugh produces wins and in the NFL, that is an important thing that the 49ers are going to miss.
In 11 seasons, Harbaugh only has had two losing seasons, experienced with players he mostly didn't recruit during his first two years at Stanford. He brought the 49ers back to prominence after many seasons of malaise and now he is essentially being shown the door. It is hard to fault Harbaugh for missing Anthony Davis, NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith for most of the season. For some reason Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree were also missing in action during 2014 as well. Despite all this, Harbaugh came close to guiding the 49ers to what could have been their fourth consecutive playoff appearance under his watch.
1 His Success is Nearly Impossible to Match
Every team's ultimate goal is to win the big game at the end of the season, however, only two teams can make it to that point. To be one of the top four teams in the 32-team league for three consecutive seasons is quite an accomplishment. The Buffalo Bills are finally starting to get some props for getting to the big game four seasons in a row. Harbaugh certainly deserves a longer leash for getting the 49ers to one Super Bowl in four years and even a fumbled punt return or two away from getting past the New York Giants in 2011 to have experienced two.
In a way there is still something to be said about getting to the playoffs three years in a row and even finishing with an 8-8 record in a highly competitive division, despite losing the services of four Pro Bowl caliber players for most of the year. The expectations might be a little too high in the city by the bay as there are many teams who would do anything to achieve such results. The 49ers establishment might be a little too spoiled to realize what Jim Harbaugh has meant to the team. He will be a tough act to follow. Jim Tomsula has his work cut out for him.
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