The 1978 San Francisco 49ers finished the season with a record of 2-12. Fresh off assuming ownership of the franchise the year prior and determined to make good on his family's investment, then-owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr cleaned house, churning most of the coaching staff and investing in a promising head coach from Stanford named Bill Walsh. So, in 1979, with the burgeoning genius at the helm, the San Francisco 49ers finished the season with a record of...
Turning around a franchise doesn’t happen overnight, nor “over-offseason.” As (/If) the 2011 NFL season approaches, it will become easier and easier to convince ourselves of the parallels between Saint Walsh (as he shall henceforth be known in my columns) and Jim Harbaugh: California-bred, quarterback-minded, Stanford coaches, simple first names...actually, if you really think about it, there aren’t that many.
Saint Walsh played JuCo quarterback, then tight end and defensive end in college; he graduated from San Jose State in 1959 with a masters in Physical Education—even writing his thesis on football—and went right into coaching. He did not play a single down of NFL football.
He coached high school but was soon hired by then-University of California coach, Marv Levy. (Can you imagine their football talks in the late 90’s? “Soooo Marv, your AFC Championship rings sure are, um, cool looking.”)
After a one year stint with the nearby Raiders, Walsh went to Cincinnati and coached under the tutelage of the great Paul Brown as an offensive coordinator. The Saint learned, then coached, then refined a “short pass offense” (No matter the label, the West Coast Offense was around long before Walsh made it famous). He was hired away by Stanford and eventually left the Cardinal (the first time) with a 17-7 record.
Saint Walsh joined the 49ers in 1979 having coached football for 20 years at all three levels.
At the University of Michigan Jim Harbaugh graduated as one of the most successful quarterbacks in school history; the Wolverines were 21-3-1 in his junior and senior years. Chicago drafted him in the first round and Harbaugh went on to have a relatively successful pro career with the Colts. (I’ll save Bears fans the pain of posting his stats in Chi-town. Everyone else, just think Alex Smith.) Over 140 career starts Harbaugh threw for 26,288 yards and 129 TD’s, won a passing title (100.7), a Pro Bowl trip and finished second in the MVP ballot in 1995. He began a fade into quarterback oblivion in 1998 after the Colts decided to draft a guy named Peyton Manning.
For much of his pro career Harbaugh had been working as a talent consultant for his father, Jack Harbaugh, the head coach at Western Kentucky, so a transition to coaching after retiring in 2001 was fairly seamless. He had a short stint with the Oakland Raiders, including their Super Bowl run in 2002 as an offensive assistant under the bumbling Bill Callahan. (Remember, the Raiders went to the dance with Jon Gruden’s team, not Callahan’s.)
After a disastrous 2003 as quarterback's coach, Harbaugh headed south and coached the University of San Diego to a 29-6 record over three seasons. Stanford scooped him up in 2007 and Harbaugh eventually left this past winter with a final record of 29-21. The team's 12-1 record this past season was the first double digit win season since 1992 when, oddly enough, The Saint was back in Palo Alto a second time. (His second stint was less impressive, finishing 17-17-1.)
Are those similar rises? Not really. The only reason we can talk ourselves into looking at their similarities is because of the Stanford ties. One coach is the football scientist, the other is the football player. (Though Harbaugh was an Academic All-American.)
But, they both took over proud, but flailing 49er franchises.
Walsh took over an organization founded on community relations and Local Sons that had been ravaged by then-GM Joe Thomas (more on him later) and had distanced itself from the community by bringing in these “outsiders” (The DeBartolos) all the way from Ohio. Harbaugh has just taken over a franchise accustomed to dominance (though less so every year) that has been, umm, mismanaged and led around like a three-legged dog by its apathetic ownership. Denise York and Rachel Phelps would probably enjoy sharing a Cosmo.
So here we are. One coach that made a change; one that could make a change.
The Saint went 2-12 in his first season, but two years later hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, opening the flood gates for a decade of dominance. What were the magic chess moves he made to set the board in his favor? You can be an offensive mastermind, but you need the right personnel.
Obviously and unfortunately for Harbaugh and Baalke, “Draft Joe Montana” isn’t on the table. (Settle down, Blaine Gabbert/Cam Newton fans) But if we look beneath the hood, The Saint, who was also GM, made a handful of very smart and pragmatic personnel adjustments and additions to set the red and gold on their cosmic trajectory through the 80’s and into the 90’s.
Those tweaks have parallels to today's San Francisco 49ers.
Each week we’ll examine one of those decisions and look at how Harbaugh and Trent Baalke can take a lesson as they prepare for 2011 and beyond.
I’ve labeled this column “Part 1” because I don’t know how many we’ll end up with—at least four or perhaps more. We’ll keep examining the parallels until we’re making the argument “Walsh instituted a red Gatorade-only policy, so Harbaugh should think about...” Then we’ll call it quits and (try to) be patient for the 2011 football season when they (hopefully) play the games.
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