SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Jim Harbaugh was predictably weary of talking about the end of his tenure with the 49ers 10 questions into Sunday’s final press conference as head coach.
Until one of his favorite players was brought up by a reporter. Then Harbaugh perked up quickly, like he had just won Sunday’s game all over again.
”Thank you! Yes, let’s talk about Frank Gore. Wow,” Harbaugh said.
Gore, entering an uncertain offseason as a 31-year-old free agent, notched his second consecutive 100-yard game to finish off the team’s disappointing 8-8 season. He finished 2014 as the NFL’s eighth-leading rusher with 302 combined yards in his last two games, thanks to 144 yards in Sunday’s win over the Cardinals. Gore might never play for San Francisco again.
”I’m not going to have the words for it, but what an unwavering competitor,” Harbaugh said. “Frank Gore will have another year of football next year, there’s no question about that. Tremendous season, tremendous character and football player.”
Gore said he cried before Sunday’s game, reflecting on his 10 seasons in red and gold that built a strong case for Hall of Fame consideration. He entered Sunday as the NFL’s active leader in yards from scrimmage since 2006 with 13,068, ahead of Steven Jackson and Adrian Peterson.
”I cried before today because when I got here, I was 21. Ten years and I’ve never been in this situation. I’ve always been under contract and knowing it might be my last game here, it was tough,” Gore said.
”It was tough because this is all I knew. When I first got here, I was a kid. Great fans, great organization. I want to be back. I wish we can things worked out. But I also know it’s a business. I respect the other running backs, Carlos Hyde, Kendall Hunter. They’ve got potential to be great. I know coach (Tom) Rathman - if he’s here with them, he’ll make sure they are.”
Gore’s four sons accompanied him in the locker room after Sunday’s game and with him on the podium for his post game press conference. He shared a moment with Harbaugh at his locker in front of reporters before going to speak in the team’s auditorium, after which Harbaugh followed an embrace with his eyes swelled up, knowing Sunday was his last chance to coach the 49ers’ all-time leading rusher.
”I wish coach Harbaugh the best. He’s a great coach,” Gore said. “…My best years, they were with him as a team. He was here and we won.”
It wasn’t until Gore’s seventh season in the league before Harbaugh joined as head coach, when he first made the playoffs after toiling in mediocrity. Since then, he’s gotten the chance to play in eight postseason games, including a Super Bowl.
There’s no question Gore is the most beloved player on the team, both by fans and teammates alike. And after averaging 4.39 yards per carry this season, an improvement over 2013’s 4.09, general manager Trent Baalke told Gore last week he was hoping to re-sign Gore for next season, particularly after finishing the season on a high note.
”I still love the game and I still can play. I feel great,” Gore said. “I want to play again. I want to play next year.”
But the 49ers’ decision in their next head coach will be play a big part in Gore’s decision to come back, he said. San Francisco will be tasked with finding a way to improve an offense that failed to live up to high expectations coming into the season after three consecutive runs deep into the playoffs.
”I want to know the coaching staff coming in,” Gore said. “Also, the guys who have been here who I know. I want to know when the game’s on the line, they’re going to fight like me. That’s what I want to know.”