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Well, he's gone, gone, gone. Gone, gone, gone. Cryin' won't bring him back.
Adieu, Gentleman Jim Harbaugh. We hardly knew ye. And, now, 49ers' head honcho Jed York says he wants someone like Bill Walsh as his next head coach. Who wouldn't, other than, occasionally, Jed's Uncle Eddie?
But, before the dust settles completely on Harbaugh's cleat marks, we may do well to remember that, lo, just four years ago, Coach Jim himself arrived as the Walshian savior. Like Walsh, the 49ers hired Harbaugh away from Stanford. Like Bill, Jim arrived with a prickly personality, a cadre of crackerjack position coaches, and a driving will to win. And, unlike Walsh, Harbaugh won immediately. Of course, Harbaugh inherited a stronger roster than did Bill. Nevertheless, other than the elusive Super Bowl victory, Harbaugh's first four years compare favorably to the legend's.
More importantly, although the two coaches do differ in many other ways, Harbaugh's path to on-field success parallels Walsh's in one distinct respect: both coaches went against the then-prevailing NFL grain. Walsh transformed pro ball from predominantly a power-game league to a precision-passing-game thrill show. Harbaugh, against perhaps even greater odds, attempted to do the opposite. Do not now forget, in the rush to rid the team of Roman, the innovations that Greg and Jim brought to the running game those first two seasons. Yes, the roster set up well for power football, and, yes, the league's defenses finally caught up with the duo's ruses. Nonetheless, in a pass-happy league, the Niners proved you could still win the Hardbaugh way.
Hardbaugh's way also provided the fans with an ongoing dramatic narrative. For four years, the conflict between those steeped in the 49ers' passing-game tradition wrangled back and forth with those devotees of the newly revived power game. Fine, spirited, arguments ensued, while, often unmentioned, the ghost of Bill Walsh stalked each debate. And here the contrasts, rather than the similarities, between the two head coaches came to the fore. Walsh, who often said he had an artistic feel for the game, once strode the sidelines like an orchestra conductor, engrossed in musings, pausing now and then to bring his hand to his chin, in a standing version of Rodin's "The Thinker." Harbaugh, on the other hand, paced and stomped, glared at officials, gesticulated, spat, grimaced and goaded. Ah, what a wonderful spectacle! Sportswriters often appended the adjective "cerebral" to Walsh. Harbaugh, proudly, called himself a "grinder," and often resembled, pardon me, a cantankerous wolverine, with cleats instead of claws.
Because of his pugnacious demeanor, opponents sometimes underestimated Harbaugh's smarts. No, he wasn't the professorial Walsh, but, still, fans will recall several coaching gems during Jim's Niner tenure, including one at New England, where he bested Belichick. I will always remember the season-ending run during 2013/14 as one of the most exciting coaching sprees in the annals of 49er football. In retrospect, that team may have already begun their slight decline from the previous two seasons, especially the offensive line. Regardless, Harbaugh rallied the lads, and the team played inspired football for several weeks. No, I'm not saying they didn't deserve to win those games. I am saying that, along with some luck, Harbaugh had that team playing at the apex of their abilities, and he deserves due credit for a superb coaching job.
During the 2014 season, that luck, as injuries piled up, morphed from good to bad to buzzard. Agreed, Coach Jim did not win a Super Bowl, nor did he change the game as profoundly as had Bill Walsh. But Harbaugh did bend pro football back toward the possibility of winning with a power rushing attack and great defense. Alas, for 49er faithful, the rival Seahawks, built in part to match the Niners, did win a Super Bowl using a similar smash-mouth formula, albeit with some subtle differences. As years pass, people, rightly or wrongly, tend to remember the Super Bowl winners and to forget their great contemporary teams. But 49er fans of late, and I think rightly, have reminded us of the state of the 49ers before Harbaugh. Let us never forget that refreshing surge of great football the man brought to our team.
Jed York did not do Harbaugh's eventual successor any favors by saying he wanted someone like Bill Walsh to coach his team. Brilliant coaches like Walsh come around, if you're lucky, once every franchise century. They don't grow on trees. Neither, though, do Jim Harbaughs. Thanks, Jim, for some memorable football.
Meanwhile, the hunt for Coach Harbaugh's replacement proceeds. Tallyho, Mr. York. Tallyho.