San Francisco 49ers President and primary ownership representative Jed York has finally proven a man of his word this offseason.
Back in Week 17 of 2008, following a meaningless win by the 49ers in a home finale against the Washington Redskins, York made his first major move as team president: removing the interim tag from head coach Mike Singletary's title and naming the former Hall of Fame Chicago Bear linebacker the official successor to the ultimately disappointing Mike Nolan. York pledged that things would be different under Coach Sing, and that 2008 was "the last time [the 49ers'] season ends in December."
It was a promise the young and overly exuberant president could not live up to, as the 49ers have missed the playoffs in the following two seasons.
Following a Week 5 loss this past season in a Sunday Night home game against the Philadelphia Eagle—which wound up being much closer than it probably should have—York went on record as saying he still had full confidence in Coach Sing and the team and vowed the 49ers would rebound to win the NFC championship and return to the playoffs.
Despite an historically poor field of divisional competition, this too proved to be all bark and no bite from the young York.
However, since the 49ers were eliminated from the playoffs, York has delivered on a few of his vows. After firing Coach Sing following the Week 16 loss to the St. Louis Rams, York decreed that the top priority for the offseason would be to find a general manager and work with him to hire the next head coach. He said despite the two years of salary the 49ers still owe Coach Sing, money would be no object in finding the next head coach. He also said Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh was the man the 49ers overwhelmingly wanted.
Less than two weeks later, Harbaugh was sitting at San Francisco’s Palace Hotel, next to York and newly promoted GM Trent Baalke, being introduced as the 49ers 18th head coach (the 17th being Jim Tomsula). York had to wait out an overly-lucrative potential offer from the Miami Dolphins and sweeten a previous offer to keep Harbaugh from returning to Stanford, ultimately giving the first-time NFL head coach $25 million over five years.
While one would be remiss not to question the methods the 49ers employed in their pursuit of Harbaugh, and while questions remain as to whether he was definitely the best option, the 49ers overcame a strong push from the Dolphins and Stanford to land the hottest coaching prospect in some time.
Harbaugh seems capable of, and excited for, the task of returning the 49ers to the levels of success they grew accustomed to under Bill Walsh and George Seifert. He spoke repeatedly in his introduction press conference about how he was looking forward to the challenge of resurrecting the franchise, and his collegiate pedigree is impressive.
All he did was win as head coach of University of San Diego, a Bowl Championship Subdivision team in the NCAA, and he took over a previously 1-11 Stanford team in 2007 and turned them into a 12-1 Orange Bowl Champion in just four years, improving each season. Combine that with the fact that Harbaugh has strong parallels and direct ties to the legendary Bill Walsh, and little doubt remains why the 49ers in particular were so hot on the proposition of landing Harbaugh.
Signing Harbaugh on as head coach was only half the battle, though. The 49ers will be largely remiss if they fail to fully recognize and capitalize on the opportunity that Harbaugh-Mania has created.
York's approach in courting Harbaugh was risky to say the least, but it did create an incredible buzz and brought some much-needed positive publicity to the 49ers franchise. Mired in a near decade-long playoff drought, the opinion of the 49ers around the league had been rightfully dim in recent years.
But now, following their successful pursuit of one of the hottest coaching prospects in recent history, the stock of the 49ers is sky high.
In the week leading up to Wild Card Weekend in the NFL Playoffs, ESPN and other major news outlets were much more focused on the futures of Harbaugh and quarterback Andrew Luck, following a resounding 40-12 Stanford victory over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl on Monday. Luck generated the first round of headlines when he announced Thursday he would forego the NFL draft and return to Stanford.
Despite incessant speculation that Harbaugh was bound for Miami and then a return to Stanford, the 49ers persevered and got their man in the end.
Regardless of what Harbaugh can accomplish when the team next takes the field, the tremendous publicity that has surrounded this drama creates a unique opportunity for the 49ers before the next season ever starts.
The 49ers need to capitalize on the wave of excitement surrounding the Harbaugh signing and use it to pursue players that could help them solve the issues that have held them back from realizing their true potential over the past several years. There are a variety of free agents or other veterans available via trade who could be tremendous assets for the 49ers next year, and with Harbaugh in tote, San Francisco suddenly becomes a much more desirable destination for available veterans.
The chance to work with Harbaugh and be a part of something expected to be so special should help the 49ers lure top-caliber assistants as well. Harbaugh's success at Stanford was due not only to his coaching abilities, but his ability to build and manage a top-notch coaching staff with talented assistants, like his offensive coordinator David Shaw and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who brought huge stride forward in the Cardinal defense on their way to the Orange Bowl title.
Perhaps the hype surrounding the Harbaugh signing could net someone like Norv Turner or Josh McDaniels as offensive coordinator, as Harbaugh attempts to build a formidable staff.
As far as this offseason is concerned, what the 49ers do under Harbaugh once they finally take the field is irrelevant. All that matters is the excitement and anticipation over what they could do. Ultimately, even if the 49ers have a fairly successful year, it may not live up to the expectations the hype and lore surrounding this whole ordeal has created. The most immediate asset Harbaugh presents for the 49ers is using this short-term ground swell of good will and excitement to build the best team they can from top to bottom.
This could be complicated by pending labor negotiations and the very real threat of a lockout that could cost the league the entire 2011 season. Commissioner Roger Goodell has all but promised to avoid such an outcome, but his rhetoric has only added to the speculation over how much separation still looms between the two sides.
Still, the 49ers need to seize the opportunity the Harbaugh signing has created, and put themselves in the best possible position for when they do return to an NFL field.
Their ability to do so will be the first critical test of Harbaugh's managerial acumen and the biggest test of York's presidency to date.
Keep the Faith!