Is Jim Harbaugh the Mark Jackson of the 49ers?


There has been a lot of controversy surrounding Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers recently. The 49ers have been criticized for a general lack of discipline this season, and the burden of this accusation most likely falls on the head coach. There have been questions as to whether or not Harbaugh has lost his locker room, in terms of discipline and respect.

Deion Sanders backed up this theory by recently saying that the 49ers players want Harbaugh out. Harbaugh responded to Sanders’ comments, calling them “a bunch of a crap.” Adding more fuel to the fire, Sanders defended his comments even after hearing Harbaugh’s response.

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In addition to all of this, there have also been several rumors about how Harbaugh and 49ers general manager Trent Baalke don’t get along.

Despite all this, Harbaugh has had much success as the head coach of the 49ers in his tenure.

Prior to 2011 when Harbaugh was hired, the 49ers put up a 6-10 record in 2010, an 8-8 record in 2009, a 7-9 record in 2008, a 5-11 record in 2007, a 7-9 record in 2006, a 4-12 record in 2005, a 2-14 record in 2004, and a 7-9 record in 2003. Harbaugh, has led the 49ers to the NFC Championship game twice (2011, 2013) and led the 49ers to the Super Bowl once (2012).

Controversy, yet success. This sounds familiar to a former head coach of another Bay Area sports team.

Former Golden State Warriors head coach Mark Jackson also began his coaching tenure in 2011. He inherited a horrible Warriors team that had only made the postseason once in the previous 17 seasons. During his first season as head coach, he led the Warriors to a poor 23-43 record in the shortened lockout NBA season, but many key Warriors players suffered injuries throughout the season.

May 3, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors head coach Mark Jackson during a press conference before the game against the Los Angeles Clippers in game seven of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In the 2012-13 season though, Jackson led the Warriors to a 47-35 record and the sixth seed in the Wester Conference Playoffs. The Warriors upset the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs, but they fell just a little short to the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Semifinals.

In the 2013-14 season, Jackson was criticized for leading an underachieving, underperforming Warriors team, but the Warriors still finished with a 51–31 record, which was the first time the Warriors had a 50-win season since the 1993-94 season. The Warriors finished with the sixth seed yet again, partially due to an even tougher and more competitive Western Conference.

Despite this success, Jackson was fired after the 2013-14 season. There were many reasons why this firing made sense, due to the Warriors not living up to their talent and potential, but this was still a surprising move to many fans.

After Jackson’s firing, rumors started to come out about Jackson’s tenure as head coach. There were rumors about tension between Jackson and Warriors’ ownership and management, and there were rumors about Jackson’s alleged intolerance of gay people.

Controversy, yet success.

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  • The 49ers and the Warriors were in slightly different places when both Harbaugh and Jackson took over their respective teams as head coach. The 49ers weren’t quite as horrible as the Warriors were, but both Harbaugh and Jackson found a way to get their respective teams out of dysfunction and into contention.

    There are many similarities between Harbaugh and Jackson.

    Harbaugh had no NFL coaching experience before being named head coach of the 49ers and Jackson had no coaching experience at all, so their success is especially impressive.

    They both also helped a couple players (Colin Kaepernick and Stephen Curry) develop into stars, and they both were known as great motivators, as seen in Jackson’s previous preaching experience and Harbaugh’s infamous “Who’s got it better than us? Nobody!” cheer.

    Many Warriors fans believe that Jackson was the right coach to get the Warriors back into relevance but not the right coach to make the Warriors consistent title contenders. Hence, the decision by Warriors’ management to hire Steve Kerr as the new head coach.

    Is Harbaugh in the same situation with the 49ers? Was he the coach that made the 49ers contenders but not the right coach to get the 49ers a Super Bowl ring?

    No, Harbaugh is not like Coach Jackson in that way. Harbaugh has done much more for the 49ers than Jackson did for the Warriors and not just because Harbaugh inherited a better team when he first started coaching.

    Harbaugh is, in general, a better coach than Jackson, which is hard to measure given that they coach different sports. However, Harbaugh is better at developing players and planning for the future of the franchise.

    December 8, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh (left) instructs quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) during the fourth quarter against the Seattle Seahawks at Candlestick Park. The 49ers defeated the Seahawks 19-17. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    Harbaugh has helped in the development of Kaepernick, even Alex Smith, and even Andrew Luck during his head coaching tenure at Stanford. Harbaugh made the tough decision to start Kaepernick over Smith, despite it being an unpopular choice at the time, because it was the better decision for the future of the franchise.

    Yes, Stephen Curry blossomed under Jackson’s reign, but some fans forget that Jackson often favored Monta Ellis in his first season as head coach and often called upon Ellis during late-game, clutch situations instead of Curry.

    Klay Thompson also significantly improved in Jackson’s most successful seasons, but that’s due to the fact that Warriors’ management traded away Ellis so that Thompson could start and develop more quickly.

    Jackson does deserve credit for helping transform the Warriors from a laugher team into a legitimate playoff team. He got the Warriors out of the doldrums and did create a “winning culture” for the Warriors based on defense, which no coach had been able to do in recent history.

    However, Jackson didn’t utilize the weapons he had at his disposal, especially on offense, and he didn’t put the Warriors in the best position to succeed, also especially on offense.

    Harbaugh has taken the 49ers further than Jackson took the Warriors. As previously mentioned, the teams were in different spots when these coaches took over, so that statement is a little biased. However, Harbaugh is, in general, the better coach of the two and has done more for the 49ers franchise in his tenure.

    Yes, he’s made mistakes. And yes, he’s not perfect. Perhaps, he could infuse more discipline into his coaching. We don’t see the team from a player’s perspective though, so we don’t know if it’s in fact true that he’s starting to lose his locker room. Perhaps there are specific changes he could make on offense, especially in terms of play-calling (although, that’s partially on offensive coordinator Greg Roman too).

    However, he’s the right football coach for this 49ers team, in terms of winning a Super Bowl. Jackson wasn’t the right coach for the Warriors, in terms of making the Warriors title contenders.

    Harbaugh has made the tough decisions and put in the hard work to lead his team to a Super Bowl ring. Now, it’s time to follow through.