Jim Harbaugh will reportedly accept Michigan's offer to become its head coach, making him the highest-paid coach in college football, signing on for six years and $49 million, dwarfing the $5 million he was set to make the final year of his contract with San Francisco.
Despite already coming to this agreement, Harbaugh will be on the sidelines as the 49ers play their final regular season game in what's been a disappointing season, capping an otherwise successful tenure.
After eight consecutive seasons of being unable to finish above .500, Harbaugh took over in 2011, leading San Francisco to three straight conference title games and a Super Bowl berth in the 2012 season. He became the first coach in league history reach the penultimate playoff game in each of his first three years.
But untenable relationships with the front office, including CEO Jed York, general manager Trent Baalke and team president Paraag Marathe, led to the 49ers making it clear Harbaugh was not going to be their head after the season. It was reported early in the year by FOX Sports that even a Super Bowl win in 2014 wouldn't have been enough for Harbaugh to keep his job.
Last season there were whispers of discontent. But the avalanche truly started at last February's scouting combine, when the reports surfaced of the 49ers fielding calls from the Cleveland Browns regarding a trade for Harbaugh. York brought the idea to Harbaugh, who indicated he wasn't interested. Many believed the fact York broached Harbaugh about leaving after three straight deep runs into the playoffs indicated discord between the coaching staff and management.
And after unsuccessful negotiations for a contract extension, the two sides elected to table those discussions until after the 2014 season. But with the 49ers out of the playoff race and needing a win Sunday to finish .500, the organization's high expectations were clearly not met.
Harbaugh's offense is viewed as the culprit. San Francisco took a big step backwards this season despite adding talent across the board, most notably at receiver, after San Francisco finished with the NFL's 31st passing attack in 2013.
They came into the year with a revitalized passing attack on paper, putting more on the shoulders of Colin Kaepernick, entering his second full season as a starter. Kaepernick signed a six-year contract extension over the summer that could be worth upwards of $115 million if all stipulations are realized. But in reality, Kaepernick's contract is more of a year-to-year agreement that gives San Francisco flexibility going forward. Only Kaepernick's $13 million salary in 2015 is guaranteed, making him expendable thereafter.
The offense is entering Sunday's game averaging just 19.1 points, good for 23rd in the league. And after running the ball more the last three seasons under Harbaugh than any team in the NFL, San Francisco is running at the seventh-highest rate this season. Harbaugh and coordinator Greg Roman have been scrutinized heavily for moving away from the physical running game that was a staple of their winning teams of the last three years.
The season has also been marred by issues off the field, including multiple criminal investigations and arrests. The 49ers released defensive lineman Ray McDonald earlier this month after he was implicated in his second investigation for a crime against a woman since August. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith was suspended for the first nine games of the season for violating the league's personal conduct and substance abuse policies. Smith in July was sentenced three years probation for weapons and DUI charges.
Cornerback Chris Culliver's hit-and-run case remains ongoing from last offseason, when he was accused of using racial slurs and threatening a teenager on a bicycle before brandishing brass knuckles. The 49ers led the NFL in arrests during Harbaugh's first three seasons.
Many believed the ultra-competitive Harbaugh would stay in the NFL, where he could compete with his brother John and rival Pete Carroll for football's highest honor, the Lombardi Trophy.
But a return to the collegiate ranks is less surprising given Harbaugh's past. In 2007 while at Stanford, he criticized Michigan for admitting "borderline guys" and for the administration pulling for players to declare soft majors, like "general studies."
A return to Michigan would mean Harbaugh could make all the disciplinary decisions on player misconduct, which was not a power he had with the 49ers. Harbaugh was left to speak for the organization all season regarding McDonald and Smith's standing, while the front office continued to endorse those players. McDonald started all 14 games before being released, and Smith's "fifth-year option" was picked up in the spring, which will make him on of the highest-paid linebackers in the league next year.
It wasn't until McDonald was implicated in a second investigation before the front office took action against him. It previously cited 'due process' when referring to his August arrest that ultimately resulted in no charges being filed. No charges have been filed in McDonald's current investigation for sexual assault, but it didn't prevent the team from releasing him.
And while numerous national reports have been indicating this day would come for almost a full calender year, Harbaugh remained staunch in not discussing his future, or reflecting negatively on his relationship with the members of the front office to the press. Harbaugh was never one to go off the record with reporters.
“The high road’s the only road I know. I’ll just keep on that one,” he said Dec. 22.
Just a day before reports surfaced about finalizing his agreement to coach at Michigan, that didn't change.
"What will happen, will happen," he said Friday. "What will not happen, won’t happen."