After Harbaugh departure, ‘The Curse of Mooch’ continues for 49ers fans
Not movie-related, but I needed to vent after 49ers management is determined to make me bang my head against the desk for the next few seasons so bear with me.
‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ George Santayana
A hotshot Michigan product fresh off a successful stint at a California college goes on to become the coach of the San Francisco 49ers, but after a playoff-packed run, clashes with management send him off to Michigan once again. For 49ers fans like me it’s deja vu all over again.
Of course I’m not talking about Jim Harbaugh, the recently no-so-gloriously discarded coach of the 49ers, but the last competent coach the proud franchise had – Steve Mariucci.
Like Harbaugh, Mariucci or ‘Mooch’ as his players lovingly referred to him, has Michigan roots. In Mooch’s case, he attended Northern Michigan University and after a few assistant coach gigs, became the head coach of University of California, Berkeley. Harbaugh played QB for Michigan, after a few assistant coach gigs, became the head coach of Stanford and made the program a national powerhouse.
Both Mooch and Harbaugh took their respective 49ers teams to a 13-3 debut season. In their follow-up seasons, each led the team to only four losses. Mooch’s 1998 squad went 12-4 while Harbaugh’s 2012 team went 11-4-1. The playoffs were expected for both coaches – Mooch managed to get the Niners in the playoffs in all but two of his six seasons, but came up on the wrong end of a power struggle with General Manager Terry Donahue and 49ers CEO John York sided with Donahue.
Despite his success, Harbaugh reportedly found himself at odds with GM Trent Baalke and John York’s son, owner Jed York, sided with Baalke. Following his firing, Mooch went on to Michigan to serve as the Detroit Lions head coach and today, Harbaugh was officially announced as the head coach of the Michigan Wolverines.
For 49ers fans, like myself, the hope is this is where the similarities end and we’re not forced to endure ‘The Curse of Mooch’ Part 2. After the wildly unpopular decision to fire Mariucci, 49ers management hired Dennis Erickson to head the team. Erickson was not a sexy pick and did little to inspire confidence in the future direction of the team. Those concerns proved correct as Erickson led the team to a dismal 9-23 record.
Keep in mind, Mooch averaged nearly 10 wins in his six seasons with the team and his worse season, 4-12, warrants a major asterisk as that was the year future Hall of Famer Steve Young suffered a career-ending concussion.
John York fired Erickson AND Donahue in 2005 effectively making the power struggle between Mariucci and Donahue a significant franchise killer as neither were with the team in three years.
John York went on to hire Mike Nolan to run the team. Nolan had history with the team as his father, Dick, was the coach of the team and led the 49ers to three playoff appearances. Thanks to Erickson, the 49ers had the No. 1 pick in the draft and because he considered future Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers to have the more challenging personality, Nolan opted to select Alex Smith. This isn’t a knock on Smith, a player I have a ton of respect for, but much more on Nolan for choosing the less-confrontational player who was less likely to challenge his authority.
Under Nolan’s leadership, Smith struggled behind a still talent-deficient roster. Too many years of free-spending had finally caught up to the team and after clearing the cupboard of all the high-priced (but still quality) players, the Niners needed a few more top 10 draft picks to be competitive. But even with the additions of Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis, the team couldn’t keep up with the rest of the league.
Nolan’s botched handling of Smith’s shoulder injury and questionable offensive coordinator selections (Mike Martz) led to his firing in 2008 after a 2-5 start and an overall 18-37 record. So if you’re keeping track at home, in his six seasons as 49ers head coach, Mariucci led the Niners to a 57-39 record while Nolan and Erickson combined for 27 wins and 60 losses.
Hall of Fame linebacker and assistant head coach Mike Singletary was named Nolan’s mid-season leading the team to a 7-9 finish, its best since Nolan’s second year. Newly appointed team president Jed York announced Singletary was the full-time coach after the final game of the season.
Note, Jed’s habit of coaching announcements immediately after the end of a season. Singletary’s tough love approach worked with some players, notably Davis, but like Nolan, his relationship with Smith was strained early on as Singletary switched quarterbacks seemingly at random.
With some hope following an 8-8 season, the 49ers seemed poised to make good on their young potential. But an 0-5 start and the firing of uncreative offensive coordinator quickly foiled those hopes.
The team stumbled to a 5-10 season before Singletary was fired in petty fashion by York a week before the season finale. The Niners limped to 18 wins and 22 losses in the Singletary era. Amazingly in the nine seasons following Mariucci’s firing, the 49ers never managed to eclipse his win total in six seasons.
Finally, in 2011, York hired Harbaugh. Somehow he was able to inspire an underachieving team to 13 wins despite a lock-out. He believed in Smith to the point that the underappreciated former Number 1 pick engineered one of the greatest wins in Niners postseason history. The next game, the Niners came within two special team fumbles of leading the team to the Super Bowl his first season. The fact that York didn’t re-sign Harbaugh right away to an extension seemed ludicrous to some fans.
The next year, the Harbaugh-led Niners continued rolling despite the controversial call to switch quarterbacks mid-season. Colin Kaepernick rewarded Harbaugh’s gutsy call by leading the Niners to its first Super Bowl in 18 years.
A questionable non call led to a Niners defeat, but Harbaugh led the team to a third consecutive NFC title game where the 49ers barely missed out on a chance to return to the Super Bowl again.
Contract extension talks flamed out and a rumor of a Harbaugh trade to Cleveland did little to encourage the 49ers fan base that management knew what they had with Harbaugh. An off-season filled with more off-field player concerns, suspensions, management sniping and significant injuries seemed to doom Harbaugh’s fourth season before it fully got underway and it seems almost a miracle that Harbaugh got the team to an 8-8 record.
Minutes after the final regular season game, York announced the team made a ‘mutual decision’ to split with Harbaugh, who leaves with a regular season record of 44-19-1 record. Fittingly, counting up his playoff wins and Harbaugh departs the 49ers with 49 total wins.
Harbaugh’s 69% win percentage places him under George Seifert’s outstanding 76% win percentage as Niners head coach and above Bill Walsh’s 61% and Mooch’s 59% winning tally. Makes perfect sense to cut such an underachieving head coach, doesn’t it? Sigh.
So it seems the York legacy will remain getting rid of winning coaches for yes men more in line with their line of thinking.
Whoever Jed York and Baalke hire the guy is in the unenviable task of having to win it all immediately with a return to a hi-octane offense to win over a fan base jilted by yet another potentially franchise-crippling head coaching change.
Hopefully ‘The Curse of Harbaugh’ won’t be nearly as long…
And now, one last time