Niners May Have Made a Huge Mistake

History shows it's very difficult to replace a successful head coach in the NFL

History isn’t on the side of the San Francisco 49ers in this one.

By pushing out Jim Harbaugh as head coach, the franchise could now be headed toward mediocrity after again rising to elite status in three of Harbaugh’s four years as coach.

In past head coach vs. ownership/upper management feuds, the head coach has always lost in the short term. But it’s often been the franchise that has taken the hit in the long term.


* After winning consecutive Super Bowls in the 1992 and 1993 seasons, Jimmy Johnson was fired by owner Jerry Jones because of consistent clashes. Barry Switzer came in and led the Cowboys to another championship in the 1995 season, but it was mostly with the same team Johnson had built. A year later Dallas was 6-10 and Switzer was gone, too. Dallas hasn’t won another Super Bowl.

* Down south in San Diego, the Chargers twice have sided with general managers over successful coaches. In 1994, the Chargers went to their only Super Bowl under head coach Bobby Ross. But Ross – who had a conflict with GM Bobby Beathard – was let go two years later (without ever having a losing season) – and the team slid into eight straight seasons without a playoff appearance. Then, after Marty Schottenheimer had just led his team to a 14-2 mark in 2006 and playoff spots in two of three seasons, he was let go in a dispute with GM A.J. Smith. Smith brought in his own guy, Norv Turner, who never seemed to get the most out of a roster that appeared to be stocked with talent.

* In Chicago, head coach Lovie Smith fell out of favor and was let go after his 2012 team went 10-6 and had just three losing seasons in nine while also taking his team to the Super Bowl in the 2006 season. Two seasons later, the Bears are looking for a new coach again after Marc Trestman proved a failure.

* And, across the Bay, the Raiders traded head coach Jon Gruden after the 2001 season. Gruden then won a Super Bowl the next year for Tampa Bay, beating an Oakland team he had built and coached by Bill Callahan -- who was fired the next season after going 4-12. The Raiders haven't been back to the playoffs since.

Now Harbaugh, who resurrected the 49ers’ winning ways – taking his team to the NFC Championship Game his first three seasons, a Super Bowl and compiling a 44-19-1 regular-season record (and 5-3 in the playoffs) – is gone to Michigan, apparently because of conflicts with the front office and ownership.

He had five more wins than the 49ers had compiled in the seven years previous to his arrival. His five postseason wins were more than the team had in the 15 preceding seasons.

By many accounts, Harbaugh was difficult to work with.

But everywhere Harbaugh has coached, his teams have had success: at the University of San Diego, at Stanford and with the 49ers. Considering the devastating injuries the 49ers endured this season – far more than in the three previous years – and the off-the-field incidents that impacted other key players, it’s remarkable the 49ers finished 8-8.

So, there’s no question Harbaugh can coach. The big question now is, can the 49ers find someone as good, or better to take his place?

“The 49ers are taking a gigantic risk here,” wrote Tony Manfred of Business Insider Monday. “Harbaugh has set an impossible standard for his successor – even his worst season (8-8 in 2014) wasn’t that bad. If the team doesn’t get back to the top of the NFC quickly, all anyone is going to remember is that the 49ers let Jim Harbaugh leave for no reason.”

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