Learning from History: Harbaugh Can't Turn 49ers Around Any Faster Than Walsh

Ted SillanpaaAnalyst IApril 7, 2011

Bill Walsh's first two 49ers' teams struggled, but Jim Harbaugh might not have that luxury.
Bill Walsh's first two 49ers' teams struggled, but Jim Harbaugh might not have that luxury.George Rose/Getty Images

Maybe we need to slow down a little bit and let history teach us of exactly how the daunting challenge confronting the San Francisco 49ers' new head coach Jim Harbaugh.

There are 49ers' fans who exclaimed here that Harbaugh should have done something by now to start turning the team around.


The former Stanford head coach can't do anything except scout draft prospects and talk about what type of roster he wants to build. It's foolish to expect Harbaugh to have done anything except remain enthusiastic, positive and clearly convinced he's the right man in the right spot.

While we're taking long, deep, relaxing breaths, let's remember that the NFL labor dispute will prevent Harbaugh from doing anything except helping conduct the upcoming draft and then waiting out what could be a lengthy court fight and negotiation between the players and the owners.

It is going to be quite some time before we see even a hint of what Harbaugh's 49ers will become.

It's already clear that Niners' fans living in a society built on instant gratification will really have to work at giving Harbaugh a chance to prove that he deserves the praise he has received among folks who know what it takes to coach in the NFL.

And, really, people who hire NFL coaches for a living know more than we do about what it takes—regardless of how many games we watch on TV each fall and winter.

Harbaugh is in a situation similar to that inherited by Bill Walsh when he left Stanford to take the 49ers job in 1979. So, let's see what we can learn from Walsh's building the 49ers' dynasty. It beats gnashing our teeth over Harbaugh admitting that, well, he kind of likes quarterback Alex Smith.

Walsh was 47 years old, with no NFL head coaching experience when owner Eddie DeBartolo, Jr. lured him away from Stanford. The 49ers had 31 victories in their last 86 games before Walsh's hiring. So, folks who think Eddie D was a godsend who turned the 49ers around need to be educated.

DeBartolo bought the club in 1977 and much of the horrid 31-55 stretch came early on his watch.

DeBartolo hired general manager Joe Thomas to build a winner in San Francisco, then watched Thomas nearly destroy the franchise, building two teams that finished a cumulative 7-23.

Veteran 49ers' fans who long for the return of Eddie D forget that he hired Thomas, who then fired a promising head coach in Monte Clark. And, DeBartolo signed off on the acquistion of an injured, over-the-hill back who led the 49ers in rushing in 1978 ... fellow named O.J. Simpson, who limped to 3.7 yards per carry.

DeBartolo didn't become lovable Eddie D. until he hired Walsh. 

Walsh, who was also the team's general manager, inherited that 2-14 team. Walsh came onboard, inheriting quarterback Steve DeBerg, and used the club's first draft pick (29th overall) to select UCLA wide receiver James Owens and led the 1979 team to another 2-14 record. Owens was a complete bust.

All Walsh did was maintain the status quo in his first year and slowly begin building with largely unheralded draft picks like quarterback Joe Montana, wide receiver Dwight Clark, linebacker Dan Bunz and others who had little or no impact in 1979.

Think Harbaugh can manage something like that in 2011?

Walsh's 1979 season was the beginning of a Hall of Fame career. Oh, and he made the bumbling owner DeBartolo our lovable Eddie D. Willing to try to be patient with Harbaugh?

Walsh started building his 49ers by using Montana sparingly in 1979. The coach, along with a talented group of scouts and front office folks, continued laying the groundwork for the Super Bowl seasons in the 1980 draft with the selections of Earl Cooper, Craig Puki, Keena Turner and punter Jim Miller.

The defense improved. Montana played more in 1980 than he did in 1979. Walsh's second team finished 6-10.

Imagine fan reaction now if Harbaugh starts out 2-14 and 6-10. There were would be public outrage and cries that he was overrated all along.

The smarter move, however, would be to step back and admit that it took the great Walsh three years to build a winner in San Francisco. And, most importantly, he didn't have to deal with the salary cap that will make Harbaugh's job a great deal more difficult.

All of the faithful willing to take 2-14, 6-10 and then see Harbaugh's 49ers enjoy even half the success that Walsh's 49ers did are looking at the things with that large portion of common sense that fans and the media so often lack.

Niners fans were calling for Walsh to be fired in 1980. They were celebrating the first Super Bowl championship in 1981.

Walsh had a 10-year record of 102-63-1 with the 49ers, including a 10-4 mark in the postseason, six NFC West titles, three NFC crowns and three Super Bowl victories. 

Fans looking for something like that from Harbaugh would almost assuredly have trouble accepting the 2-14, 6-10 seasons that start the Walsh era. Those fans would be so, so wrong.

A reader or two has already expressed their concern that Harbaugh hasn't proven himself yet as an NFL coach. So, imagine what they'd be saying if his first team finished 2-14? All he's done so far is say that he thinks Alex Smith's career could be salvaged.

As the NFL draft draws near, followed by a long, quiet summer, time will be better spent remembering that Walsh didn't the build the dynasty in a day—and acknowledging that Harbaugh probably won't turn things around quickly either.

(Ted Sillanpaa can be reached at tsillanpaa1956@gmail.com)


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