By Glenn Dickey
Jim Harbaugh has turned the 49ers around, but he wouldn't even have been with the team but for the foresight and determination of team CEO Jed York.
At 30, York is the youngest head of a franchise in the NFL, and he's suffered through a tough learning process to get there. But, both with his hiring of Harbaugh and his hard work on a stadium project, he's shown he belongs.
York had two decisions to make at the end of last year's 6-10 season. The first was on a general manager; Scot McCloughan had left just before the 2010 draft and assistant Trent Baalke had been named acting general manager. York hardly hesitated before removing the "acting" part of Baalke's job description, and Baalke, a very hard worker with years of NFL experience, has put together two very good drafts, including a surprise first-round pick this year, LB-DE Aldon Smith, who may win honors as the top first-year player.
Together, York and Baalke zoomed in on Harbaugh as their top candidate after the great job the coach had done at Stanford, culminating in an Orange Bowl triumph in January.
Trouble was, the 49ers weren't the only ones seeking Harbaugh, who was definitely the flavor of the month. The Dolphins were also heavily courting Harbaugh. Media reports had Harbaugh going to Miami.
"We never stopped talking to Jim," said York, "and he assured us he hadn't committed to anybody else. He just seemed like a good fit for us."
Meanwhile, though, Harbaugh still had a team to coach — and he was in Miami for the Orange Bowl, with a meeting scheduled with Dolphins owner Stephen Ross after the game.
When the Cardinal won the game, Harbaugh called York and told him he'd canceled the meeting with Ross and would fly home in the morning to talk to the 49ers.
"I told him to stay over with his team and celebrate the win," said York. "We'd have plenty of time to talk the next day."
So, Harbaugh stayed over a day, then flew back to the Bay Area and after another lengthy (apparently, about four hours) meeting with York and Baalke agreed to a contract with the 49ers. Shortly after Harbaugh agreed to the contract, he started looking at videos from the 49ers' 2010 season and decided his first priority would be to get Alex Smith back. He met with Smith, whose contract had expired, and received assurances from Alex that he'd sign a new contract with the team. So, Harbaugh gave him his playbook to study and, after the owners declared a lockout, Smith organized practices with his receivers, to give them a headstart when the lockout was finally lifted.
The Harbaugh signing was a real milestone for York, who had started his 49ers career in 2006 after serving as a financial advisor for Guggenheim Partners in New York.
Jed worked in different departments before replacing his dad, John, as CEO in 2008. There were some rocky moments ahead — the firing of Mike Nolan in midseason, 2008; the unexplained departure of McCloughan; the disaster that was Mike Singletary.
In the meantime, though, York was working hard on the 49ers' plans to build a new stadium in Santa Clara. Last week, the 49ers announced $850 million in business funding for the stadium, with construction scheduled to begin in 2012.
49ers fans have not been happy with the York family, but Jed is quickly changing their minds.