A couple of weeks ago, the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers sacked their larger-than-life head coach Jim Harbaugh. There had been rumblings all season that the flamboyant and outspoken coach had a difficult relationship with the franchise’s front office, so a parting of ways looked inevitable. To the outside world, however, the decision to fire Harbaugh looked absurd.
Jim had been coach of the 49ers since 2011. During this time he broke the record for the most wins achieved by a head coach in his first four years at any team.
In the seven years before Harbaugh arrived, the 49ers had a woeful record of won 39 lost 73. They had failed to make the playoffs every single one of those years – a disaster for such a famous franchise.
Harbaugh turned the team’s fortunes around immediately and took them to within a whisker of the Superbowl in his first season. He ultimately won more games during his four years in charge than the 49ers’ three previous head coaches combined.
On the day he was fired, Jim’s record was an outstanding won 44 lost 19 and tied 1. This winning percentage of 69.4% is this fifth highest in NFL history. He also led the 49ers to the NFC Championship game (the Super Bowl semi-final) in his first three seasons – another record.
So why did Harbaugh and the 49ers part ways? His final year produced a somewhat disappointing 8-8 record, but there were several mitigating factors: the team suffered a ridiculous number of injuries and several players were involved in off-field incidents that were huge distractions. Given another year and better luck, Harbaugh surely would have taken the 49ers back to the play offs.
Well not according to the franchise’s owner Jed York – a mere 34 four year old with no direct NFL experience who had inherited the team from his uncle a few years beforehand. According to Jed, Harbaugh had to go because he no longer shared the front office’s vision.
York and his general manager Trent Baalke, who is in charge of player recruitment (let’s just call him a selector for the sake of argument), gave a press conference last Monday to announce Harbaugh’s exit. When the media questioned them they claimed the decision to part ways was ‘mutual’. The assembled journalists sighed knowingly. When Harbaugh was asked why he was leaving the day before, he’d said “I work at the pleasure of the organisation”.
If it looks like sacking, walks like a sacking and quacks like a sacking, it’s probably a sacking.
Many suspect York had been leaking against Harbaugh all year: claims that his personality was grating, and that several senior players no longer wanted him around, had become ubiquitous in the media for some time. It was clear that York, for whatever reason, simply wanted his magnetic and charismatic head coach out of the door. And it had absolutely nothing to do with winning games.
To say that 49ers fans are displeased at Harbaugh’s departure is an understatement. It would be like saying Mike Gatting once had a mild contretemps with Shakoor Rana regarding the finer details of cheating.
What really irritates the fans is that nobody has explained the decision properly. It just happened – and the fans were expected to lump it.
Neither side has given any specific reasons for the split: Harbaugh has stayed almost entirely silent (whilst landing another job that’s significantly better paid) and York keeps spouting his ‘mutual decision’ baloney.
When grilled by an irate local DJ, who liked the decision to sack Harbaugh about as much as Ravindra Jadeja likes Jimmy Anderson, York simply said “if you don’t believe it was mutual I don’t know what else to tell you”. The conversation therefore went no further: the interviewer, who was desperate to dig deeper, eventually had to move on; he was getting nowhere. Stony silences don’t make great radio.
Due to the complete lack of information, numerous bloggers and beat writers have speculated there’s a confidentiality clause in play. Inevitably an avalanche of unsubstantiated gossip and innuendo has filled the vacuum.
During other interviews with the media, York has made vague references to team culture. Meanwhile Trent Baalke talked about how important it is for the front office and the head coach to share the same philosophy. Read into that what you will.
Meanwhile, journalists sympathetic to the owner have argued that Harbaugh is very much a ‘four year coach’. In other words he has an abrasive, arrogant personality that inevitably rubs people up the wrong way; therefore he only ever stays in any job for approximately four years before everyone gets fed up with him.
Unnamed sources at the Stanford University (Harbaugh’s previous employer) suddenly claimed that he wasn’t missed when he left for the 49ers – even though he was wildly successful there, won the university Orange Bowl and was named coach of the year.
All of the above might sound extremely familiar to England cricket fans. I won’t labour the parallels between Harbaugh’s dismissal and the sacking of you know who because they’re painfully obvious.
Let’s just say that many fans regard the owner as aloof, out of his depth and believe its wrong to let off-field politics interfere in team affairs. A large proportion of them also believe York talks too much corporate mumbo jumbo.
Meanwhile all the players (many of whom are incredibly candid on Twitter) have denied the alleged rifts with Harbaugh, praised his influence on their careers, and expressed nothing but sadness at his departure. Where have we heard all this before?
What’s interesting to us as cricket fans, of course, is that sackings of popular players and coaches happen in other sports all the time. For every Jim Harbaugh and Kevin Pietersen there’s a Jose Mourinho – although it looks like Roman Abramovich, the canny operator that he is, eventually realised that pride and business don’t mix; there’s nothing quite like winning.
Rather than starting another ‘rebellious winner gets ditched by stuffy suits’ discussion, what interests me (and I hope it interests you too) is a quote made by Jed York in the aforementioned grilling by the local DJ. It concerns the concept of winning at any cost.
When asked whether winning was all that mattered – the implication being that York was insane to jettison a proven winner – the 49ers owner bluntly disagreed. He claimed there was indeed one precious thing even more important than winning: ‘winning with class’.
Most journalists have interpreted this as a subtle dig at Harbaugh, who was known to have unsightly tantrums on the side-line; imagine a love-child of Alex Ferguson and Paulo Di Canio. Actually scrap that, imagine Ricky Ponting arguing with Aleem Dar at the MCG but much, much worse.
I’d be interested to know everyone’s views on this. How important it is for a team to win with style and grace: for champions to conduct themselves the right way, play fair at all times and generally act like good eggs? It strikes me this is a rather quaint, old-fashioned idea.
Do Chelsea fans care if they win the FA’s Fair Play Award (which honours the team that picks up the fewest red and yellow cards every season)? Surely they only care about winning the actual league?
West Bromwich Albion are currently the most virtuous team in England according to the FA’s league table for disciplinary points. In the table that actually matters, they’re just one point off the relegation zone. Maybe West Broms fans wish their side had a bit more devil?
To what extent do you think arrogance, abrasiveness, stubbornness, bloody-mindedness (call it what you will) is a central part of winners’ DNA? Would Matthew Hayden have been as good without his brash gum-chewing persona? Would Viv Richards have been so intimidating had he walked to the wicket with shoulders slumped rather than strutting purposefully?
Confidence, or at the least the projection of confidence, is an essential part of a top level sportsman’s or sportswoman’s armoury. If a significant proportion of top-level sport is all about mental resilience, surely inner-belief is all important. This is true for both captains and coaches: how can they rally the troops and instil confidence if they themselves fail to exude the utmost faith in their own (and the team’s) ability.
What’s more, is it even possible to triumph in professional sports with a whiter-than-white approach these days? Just look at Richie McCaw, the captain of the All Blacks and probably the best player on the planet over the last few years. McCaw notoriously plays on the edge of the rules. I know a lot of Aussies who simply refer to him as “that effing Kiwi cheat”.
It’s a similar tale in cricket. If you look back on the great teams of the past, Clive Lloyd’s Windies team and Steve Waugh’s Australians both played with a hardnosed edge that offended sensibilities at the time: the Windies intimidated the opposition with excessive short pitched bowling (which eventually led to bouncers being limited), while Waugh’s Aussies took sledging and ‘mental disintegration’ to an unprecedented level.
While many people couldn’t condone the way Waugh’s Aussies played the game – even some Aussie journalists believed it was beyond the pale – none of them seemed to mind when Alan Border’s tough-guy approach turned the Baggy Greens’ fortunes around. It was only when the Aussies were used to success, and beating the Poms was routine, did they start complaining about the actual manner of victory.
As an Englishman brought up in an era of continuous Ashes humiliation, I just wanted England to win full stop. I couldn’t care less about how we won; I wanted the embarrassment to stop. Us England fans couldn’t afford to be greedy. Winning was all that mattered.
The final question is how much chairmen and administrators should tolerate ultra-competitive behaviour. Should they make allowances, and appreciate that professional sport (with all the money involved) is now a win-at-all-costs environment? Or should they remind protagonists that they’re role models, and that indiscretions, arrogance and rule bending are not acceptable in the quest for trophies? Perhaps it’s ok to do what you want as long as (a) you don’t get caught, and / or (b) it doesn’t reflect badly on the organisation you represent.
What I’m leading to is this: what kind of England cricket team you want to see? After we won the Ashes at home in 2013, some of players urinated on the Oval outfield. Did this bother you, or did the post Ashes euphoria render this slightly unpleasant snippet of news irrelevant?
Obviously we’re in no position to be fussy at the moment – agonising over the manner of victories seems a tad irrelevant when we can’t buy a win of any kind – but what kind of team would you like to see: a bullish, brash and aggressive unit that bullies the opposition into submission, or maybe a more intelligent, stylish and altogether more ‘classy’ outfit that lets its actions on the field speak louder than bravado?
Furthermore, what kind of side do you think England have now? What kind of side do you think the ECB want, and will this model improve or hinder our chances of becoming the best team in the world?
And why is it that, in times gone by, we’ve always tried to replicate the Aussies in order to beat them? Do Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad really need to imitate Merv Hughes’ mouthiness to win the Ashes next year? Is winning everything or is it ingrained in our culture to admire good losers more than bad winners?