SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Since Jim Harbaugh made the leap from Stanford to coach the San Francisco 49ers in 2011, his team entered Week 17 tied with the Broncos and Patriots for the best overall winning percentage over the last four seasons.
Sunday's 20-17 victory was his 49th win with the 49ers, fittingly, finishing second behind Bill Belichick in total wins since 2011, including the postseason. Of course, last year Harbaugh became the first coach in NFL history to reach the conference title game in his first three seasons as a head coach.
But all that success wasn't enough to last a fifth year.
San Francisco officially parted ways with Harbaugh after Sunday's game, when they released a statement just after he stepped off the podium in the team's swanky new auditorium in Levi's Stadium in his Gatorade-soaked black pullover, matching hat and signature khakis.
The team described the split as a mutual agreement to part ways.
"Jim and I have come to the conclusion that it is in our mutual best interest to move in different directions,” said team CEO Jed York in the statement. “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.”
On the surface, what Harbaugh created during his first three seasons coaching the 49ers looked like the dawn of another dynasty. And after the organization's immense levels of success in the 80s and 90s, the previous eight losing seasons had the feeling of a blip on the radar, knowing Harbaugh was off to a historic start to his NFL coaching career."For me, it’s something that you didn’t see coming especially with what he had done in previous years. I mean, unprecedented," receiver Anquan Boldin said. "First three years that you go to at least the NFC Championship. So, definitely didn’t see that coming.”
But whatever happened beyond the surface, behind closed doors at the team's headquarters in Santa Clara, proved untenable. And for York and general manager Trent Baalke, the feeling must have been that Harbaugh's success wasn't sustainable.
Or, at least, the price of his success would ultimately destroy what many consider one of the deepest rosters in the NFL that helped Harbaugh win all those games over the last three years.
Outsiders might never know what happened inside those walls. But for the foreseeable future, those stories will be some of the most coveted in team history. Because as unprecedented as Harbaugh's success was, the same can be said for his departure. Unprecedented.
"I don't know how to say it," Harbaugh said. "I maybe don't have the words for it. I'll say it this way: as I've said all along, you work at the pleasure of the organization. It's been a tremendous four years. And it's been a pleasure to work and serve for this organization, for these players, for this football team. I feel great about what we've accomplished. Feel great about the friendships that were made, the relationships that were made. That's what a team is - a set of relationships.
"I feel good."
Reports have run rampant about Harbaugh's next job, likely at the University of Michigan, his alma mater. Harbaugh didn't refute those reports after Sunday's game, instead reveling in his final hours coaching one of the league's best teams over the last four seasons, this year's 8-8 version aside.
"Just the way I feel about these players, these coaches, this staff, this organization," Harbaugh said. "Been the time of my life. Been a lot of great memories, great moments."
In many ways, Harbaugh's move to Michigan is a perfect fit - beloved alma mater aside. Not because it allows him to compete at the highest level - something he's often referred to as the NFL's No. 1 draw. But because a coach having so much success at the professional level going back to college is unprecedented, just like his last four seasons with the 49ers.
Michigan will not only be a place where he will reportedly become one of the highest-paid coaches in the sport (where he is believed to sign a six-year, $49 million contract). It will be a place where he can make all the decisions. He is the kingpin, and won't have to squabble with personnel people or with public relation departments about accessibility. At Michigan, Harbaugh will make the rules and there's won't be the struggle at the top that mired his stay with San Francisco.
And that includes the disciplinary side of things, where he will no longer be left to answer for his players' misgivings without his say being the loudest in the room. In college, team's are built on the strength of recruiting. There is no draft or salary cap that prohibits a 53-man roster from being as strong as possible. In college, the next man up might be a four or five-star recruit, not an undrafted backup just added from the practice squad.
At Michigan, Harbaugh won't have to answer for situations like Ray McDonald's or Aldon Smith's. He won't have to battle with front office types who are thinking about salary cap ramifications before the overall integrity of the football program. It's just my opinion, but part of Harbaugh leaving for college is about getting back to the roots of developing people are at their most malleable stage: when they go to college and form their adulthood.
Harbaugh will go to Michigan driving the same pickup truck as many of his players. Not the a Mercedes, Range Rovers, Bentleys or Rolls Royces that littered the 49ers' parking lot at the team's facility. He will be able to hand out his favorite 'blue-collar' button down shirts, that will carry far less irony on the backs of college kids than NFL millionaires.
Sunday, Harbaugh became the second coach in 49ers' history to never have a losing season, joining team hall of fame inductee George Seifert, by beating the playoff-bound Cardinals to reach 8-8. The definition of mediocrity.
How did the 49ers get here?
Was it the lack of an offensive identity that became so discernible over the previous three seasons? Was it the injuries along the offensive line, that used to be a staple of Harbaugh's offense? Was it discontent with everything that was surrounding the locker room?
The answer is likely all the above. Harbaugh's failures to get the team back to championship contention in 2014 prove how thin the line can be between success and failure in the NFL.
"You have to be on top of everything," Harbaugh's chosen quarterback Colin Kaepernick said Sunday, "every detail, whether you're a starter, backup, third-string, it doesn't matter. You have to be on top of everything because you could be playing at any moment."
Kaepernick will be the central figure in defining Harbaugh's tenure going forward. Should he develop into a better pocket passer and win a championship, Harbaugh will be revered for being Kaepernick's first endorser. If Kaepernick flames out and takes another step in the wrong direction in 2015 without Harbaugh around, then the famed 'quarterback whisperer' might lose some of that luster in the pro level.
"I'm the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers until they tell me different," Kaepernick said. "So, I'm going to keep trucking on. Be looking forward to finding out who they're going to bring in and what we're going to be working on. But, as far as me, I'm going to continue to work."
York and Baalke will be made available to speak to the media Monday. But there's a good chance the questions surrounding Harbaugh's exit will remain unanswered, until the "save-face" campaign begins in the offseason, when leaks from unnamed sources dribble out damning information about Harbaugh's day-to-day operations.
But until then, the only way to truly define the man that was so impossible to figure out remains: unprecedented.