After 10 months of speculation that Harbaugh would not be back with the 49ers to complete his five-year contract he signed in 2011, the 49ers will cut ties with their head coach "24-48 hours" after the season ends, according to the report.
Harbaugh had unprecedented success since joining San Francisco after reforming Stanford's football program back into national relevance. After inheriting an 11-loss team, he led Stanford to a 12-1 season and a win in the Orange Bowl in 2010 before jumping to the NFL.
There, Harbaugh became the first coach in league history to guide his team to the conference title game in his first three seasons as head coach.
But after losing in last year's NFC Championship Game to the rival Seattle Seahawks, Harbaugh and 49ers CEO Jed York were unable to come to an agreement on a contract extension in the offseason, publicly electing to table those discussions until after 2014, before the final season of Harbaugh's $25 million contract.
"And I think both of us came to that conclusion it doesn’t make sense to try and negotiate a contract in the middle of the season," York said on the Rich Eisen Show Oct. 6. "We’re focused on getting back and winning the Super Bowl. That’s really the only thing that’s on anybody’s mind here."
San Francisco will not be competing for a Super Bowl this season. Instead, they were eliminated from playoff contention with Week 15's loss in Seattle. Over the weekend, York's team blew a 21-point lead before falling in overtime to the San Diego Chargers 38-35, falling to 7-8 on the season, the club's highest loss total since it went 6-10 in 2010, the year before Harbaugh was hired.
Last week, Michigan reportedly offered Harbaugh a six-year, $48 million contract that would make him one of the highest-paid head coaches in all of football. Glazer reported Sunday that Harbaugh's alma mater did, in fact, reach out to the 49ers and showed interest in hiring Harbaugh to become its head coach.
According to the report, San Francisco brought that to Harbaugh's attention, although he is still undecided about where he would like to coach in 2015.
Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, who made a strong push for Harbugh back in 2011, said Sunday their current head coach Joe Philbin will return in 2015 following a win over the Minnesota Vikings, giving Miami its first chance at a winning record during Philbin's tenure with a win Week 17.
Ross has strong ties to Michigan, having donated upwards of $300 million to his alma mater. The university's business school is named after him.
Ross' decision to endorse Philbin for next season came at an interesting time considering Michigan's reported interest in Harbaugh. In November, Ross was reportedly more interested in Harbaugh coaching at Michigan than under him in Miami.
For now, Ross' endorsement of Philbin removes the Dolphins from the list of potential suitors for 2015, that will likely include the Chicago Bears, where Harbaugh played the first seven years of his NFL career after getting drafted 26th overall in 1987. The Oakland Raiders are also a possibility, as are a number of teams that will create coaching vacancies in the coming weeks.
Dating back to last February, when the Browns reached out to the 49ers to inquire about trading for Harbaugh, speculation has run rampant about San Francisco eventually looking to trade the head coach for draft picks.
Trading a coach is not like trading a player. Harbaugh must sign off on any trade, and it remains to be seen if he would be willing to do so. That's where the complications of Harbaugh's potential exit come into play. He will have to consider if he wants to join a new team that's giving up assets for his services. Otherwise, he could force the 49ers to fire him and join any team he chooses as a free agent.
The story in February about potentially trading Harbaugh to Cleveland was the first domino in what's been a tumultuous season littered with rumors about his future with San Francisco. Just hours prior to the season-opening win over the Dallas Cowboys, the NFL Network reported Harbaugh already started losing players in the locker room.
"(The players) have dealt with a lot over the last couple years," reporter Ian Rapoport said on NFL Network Sept. 7. "Some of the way he's treated them, some lack of respect. And all because they are winning, they are fine with it, but some of the players wonder, if they lose, will it all spiral out of control?"
Spiral out of control it has, as the 49ers are in the midst of their first four-game losing streak of Harbaugh's tenure, that included a defeat to the 11-loss Oakland Raiders Dec. 7. That loss came 10 days after a 17-3 Thanksgiving night defeat in which York tweeted an apology to fans before the game was over.
San Francisco managed just 164 yards of offense that night, emblematic of the team's offensive failures as a whole in 2014. After the front office added wideouts Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd, along with rookie running back Carlos Hyde, expectations for the offense's evolution were high coming into the season.
The 49ers won two road playoff games last year against Green Bay and Carolina with strong offensive showings, and even entered the fourth quarter of the conference title game with a 17-13 lead against the NFL's best defense. But the team was unable to close the game and earn a second straight trip to the Super Bowl thanks to three second-half turnovers.
Last year's offense was ranked 13th in the NFL scoring 24.7 points per game. This season, San Francisco fell to 26th, scoring 19.1, after the organization worked to improve the offense, the team's weak point over the last three years. But it got worse, taking San Francisco out of playoff contention for the first time in Harbaugh's four seasons.
Notably, it's been the play of Colin Kaepernick, who Harbaugh chose as his quarterback both in 2011's draft and as the starter over Alex Smith in 2012, that's symbolized this year's offensive issues. Kaepernick's play has taken a step back, as has the offensive line and his batch of pass catchers, including tight end Vernon Davis and receiver Michael Crabtree, who have uncertain futures with San Francisco.
As an offensive coach, the 49ers' front office can point to Harbaugh's failings on that side of the ball, if, and when, they let go of one of the most successful coaches in the organization's rich history.
Coming into the season, it looked like the defense would be San Francisco's problem area. All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman was thought to return late in the year after tearing his ACL and MCL in January's conference title game (but elected not to come back this season), while pass rusher Aldon Smith was suspended nine games for violating the league's personal conduct and substance abuse policies.
But defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's unit enters Sunday's game as the fifth-best defense in the NFL, allowing 316 yards per game, the exact same number as 2013's defense that had a healthy Bowman and Patrick Willis, who has season-ending surgery on his big toe last month.
After Saturday's deflating overtime loss, Harbaugh said: "Right now, not much to say, other than keep fighting. Get our last regular season win. That’ll be the goal. But that’s a tough one. Everybody feels it."
The initial tension reported about the 49ers management structure included Harbaugh's relationship with general manager Trent Baalke, to which all parties cited a necessary creative tension, including York in October's television appearance.
"Jim competes at anything and everything he does," York said. "And that sometimes rubs people the wrong way. But he has an amazing way to be able to pull people together and find a way to win tough football games - put himself in a position to have this team have the most success."
Harbaugh will address the media Monday afternoon.