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Ivey: Stand by coaches, not front office

| Thursday, October 8, 2015

On Dec. 28, after their win in the final game of the regular season, the San Francisco 49ers announced they and head coach Jim Harbaugh decided to mutually part ways.

Harbaugh had been hired by the 49ers in 2011 to revitalize a once proud franchise that was enduring hard times. That’s exactly what he did.

In his first three seasons as 49ers head coach, Harbaugh led the team to records of 13-3, 11-4-1 and 12-4, two division titles, three straight conference finals appearances and one Super Bowl appearance. He revitalized the career of quarterback and former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith and developed young quarterback Colin Kaepernick into a superstar. It looked like he was developing them to be a force in the NFL for years to come.

Alas, the 49ers front office got greedy.

They didn’t like Harbaugh’s fiery and unorthodox personality despite his success, and a rift soon formed between him and the team hierarchy. It got so bad it started to affect the team. In 2014, the 49ers posted an 8-8 record and missed the playoffs for the first time of the Harbaugh era. As it turns out, that era wouldn’t last long.

There were rumors going around during the season that it would be Harbaugh’s last year as coach of the team regardless of how the team did, and that Harbaugh would leave and take another NFL coaching job, or possibly, go back to coaching college football at his alma mater, University of Michigan. 49ers owner Jed York denied those claims at the time.

However, after the last game of the season and the news of Harbaugh’s departure started to break, there was fiery speculation that Harbaugh could become the Michigan head coach as soon as the end of that week. Sure enough, the next day, he was on a private jet to Detroit, and the day after that, he was standing at a press conference in front of the famous block “M.”  

York claimed the 49ers and Harbaugh agreed to mutually part ways. However, Harbaugh later said, “I didn’t leave the 49ers. I felt like the 49ers hierarchy left me.” 49ers assistant coach Jim Tomsula was later named the 49ers new head coach.

Fast forward to now. Harbaugh has led Michigan to a 4-1 record and the No. 18 ranking in the AP poll. They have been one of the most surprising teams in college football and there’s already talk of Harbaugh as a possible coach of the year candidate. It looks like Harbaugh is building Michigan into a national power again.

Meanwhile in Santa Clara, the 49ers currently have a record of 1-3 and have suffered three straight blowout losses. They are in last place in their division and have looked lost under Tomsula. Kaepernick is constantly running for his life and can’t stop throwing interceptions, and the defense just doesn’t know what to do. There’s not much hope for them the rest of this season or beyond. And just like that, the organization is right back where it started before Harbaugh.

I have never quite seen a franchise destroy itself quite like the 49ers have. Perhaps it’s because the last time something like this happened, I was too young to remember it.

The 49ers situation reminds me of how the great Chicago Bulls dynasty of the 1990s ended. Despite the Bulls’ success, there was a rift between Bulls head coach Phil Jackson and general manager Jerry Krause, who felt he never got enough credit for the team’s success. Krause told stories to the media that portrayed Jackson as a control freak who mistreated his assistant coaches.

In 1997, Krause gave Jackson a one year contract and told Jackson the 1997-1998 season would be his last as Bulls coach, even if they won the championship that season. The Bulls did win the championship that year, their third straight and sixth in the span of eight seasons, but Jackson was let go. After Jackson was let go, Jordan retired for the second time of his career, and key players Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman left the team. Without them, the Bulls finished with the worst record in the NBA the next season, and would continue to be one of the NBA’s worst teams for the next half decade. It was a monumental organizational collapse, and it all started from the front offices greed.

These examples are just a few of the many reasons why when a rift is happening between coaches and the front office, franchises should stick by the coaches and not the front office. The coaches are the ones that are coaching and developing their players; they know more about the players than anyone in the organization. If you are a successful professional sports organization, why would you want to risk losing the success you are having by siding with a bunch of greedy front office executives whose feelings get hurt when they’re not praised enough?

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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