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Jim Harbaugh Will Land on His Feet After 49ers Breakup, but Will the 49ers?

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterDecember 29, 2014

USA Today

It was a few weeks ago, after the Thanksgiving Day game, the one where the 49ers were manhandled by Seattle. I got Jim Harbaugh alone, for a few seconds, and asked about Michigan. "I'm thinking about turning this team around, nothing else," he said. "I'm coaching this team."

The next day, a person close to Harbaugh told me, "He's an NFL coach." I heard that over and over. I believed it. Many did.     

That was weeks ago. Now Harbaugh's departure from San Francisco is official, and multiple reports have Harbaugh-Michigan as a done deal.

Bruce Feldman @BruceFeldmanCFB

Jim Harbaugh's family is flying to Ann Arbor Monday, source tells @FoxSports. Harbaugh will be #Wolverines new head coach.

John U. Bacon @Johnubacon

I just got off the phone with more sources tonight. It's done. Jim Harbaugh is coming to Michigan - and his friends are flying in Monday.

If you ask the many thousand citizen Michigan journalists, this was a foregone conclusion. Harbaugh has been destined to coach Michigan since he was an embryo. My Twitter account has been peppered with various insults, slurs and told-you-so's-Mr.-NFL-Guy from people apparently equipped with a T.A.R.D.I.S. They all knew, all along, that Harbaugh was going.

Except they didn't. No one did.

Based on interviews with 49ers assistant coaches and others this past week, the thought is that Michigan was always potentially a Harbaugh destination, that Harbaugh's eventual trek to Michigan was more evolution than destiny.

It cannot be stressed enough how unusual this move is for Harbaugh. It has basically never been done before in the modern history of the NFL. No highly successful coach has ever bolted the NFL for college. Ever.

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"You work at the pleasure of the organization, that's what we all do," Harbaugh told reporters Sunday.

Harbaugh was free to sign anywhere in the NFL without compensation, but he appears to have chosen Michigan instead.

49ers CEO Jed York said in the team's statement:

Tony Avelar/Associated Press

Jim and I have come to the conclusion that it is in our mutual best interest to move in different directions.

We thank Jim for bringing a tremendous competitive nature and a great passion for the game to the 49ers. He and his staff restored a winning culture that has been the standard for our franchise throughout its history. Their commitment and hard work resulted in a period of success that should be looked back on proudly by our organization and our fans. We wish Jim and his family all the best.

How did this end? How did one of the most successful coaches in the NFL end up basically fired?

People close to Harbaugh portray him as increasingly becoming disgusted—that was the word used by several team sources—with the 49ers front office.

This takes some careful explaining, and some of it is nuanced, but based on interviews with several sources close to Harbaugh, his departure from the 49ers came down to three main things:

  1. His love of Michigan. Self-explanatory.
  2. The behavior of his players. Several 49ers players became national news for alleged crimes, some of them ugly. One source explained that Harbaugh came to believe the behavior problem among players in the NFL is "almost impossible to fix." I've also been told—but still have been unable to totally flesh it out—there was a great divide between Harbaugh and the front office on how to handle players in trouble with the law. Harbaugh believes that in college he'd have more control over those issues.
  3. He wanted total control.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

The first of those three reasons is the most important, but that last one is also vital. Harbaugh's clashes with the front office (and I'm told they were extensive and nasty), one 49ers assistant coach told me, "taught Jim a valuable lesson: that for him to be even more successful, he needs to have final say."

At Michigan, he likely will have final say over everything, from the players recruited to the brand of hot dogs sold at the games. To an uber control freak like Harbaugh, it will be heaven.

The Harbaugh-49ers divorce was a mutual act, and there is plenty of blame to go around. A talented, hot-head coach and an egotistical front office equaled great success (mostly) on the field. Yet Harbaugh's tenure was destined to be short due to Harbaugh's nature.

Jim Harbaugh coaching record
SeasonTeamW-L
2004University of San Diego7-4
2005University of San Diego11-1
2006University of San Diego11-1
2007Stanford4-8
2008Stanford5-7
2009Stanford8-5
2010Stanford12-1
201149ers13-3
201249ers11-4-1
201349ers12-4
201449ers8-8
sports-reference.com

As predictable as that was, what will happen next is equally predictable: Harbaugh will win at Michigan, and he will win a lot, because that's what he's done everywhere. He just did it at the highest of levels. In the NFL, they look at Harbaugh, and they see someone who will quickly and forcefully return Michigan football to a dominant power.

Now comes the hard part for the 49ers: replacing a coach who went to three title games and a Super Bowl in four years. It was a pretty incredible run, and with Harbaugh gone, the pressure shifts to the 49ers front office.

The team will be under immediate pressure to win, and one of the things you will see happen is the 49ers struggle mightily, at least over the next two years. Harbaugh was that good. A dividing presence, yes, but one of the more purely talented coaches in the sport. In any sport.

San Francisco must hit a home run with its next hire, and that hire must win immediately, the way Harbaugh did.

One name to watch as a Harbaugh replacement is Pep Hamilton. I know Hamilton's stock has taken a hit recently, but I also know the 49ers still like him, and the front office may place emphasis on someone who can repair Colin Kaepernick's struggling game. Sure, Andrew Luck has recently been far from perfect, but he's been better than Kaepernick.

Harbaugh's legacy is thick with nuance. He was a tremendous coach who restored greatness to the 49ers. But he's also gone because that same drive that makes him great—and will likely lead to him winning a title at Michigan—also led to him having a fractured relationship with the front office.

Harbaugh's tenure can only be viewed as a tremendous success—a short-lived one, but tremendous nonetheless.

Now the 49ers have to replace him, and it will be much harder than maybe that front office thinks.

Much harder.

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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