Jim Harbaugh and the vagaries of the workplace

Jim Harbaugh, seen here in his Stanford coaching days, is college-bound once more.

Jim Harbaugh, seen here in his Stanford coaching days, is college-bound once more.

Well, it’s official: Jim Harbaugh is off to coach at the University of Michigan, ending a successful if stormy tenure as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.

Harbaugh’s departure – or dismissal, the breakup may not have been mutual – proves what I have long suspected about the workplace: It’s less about what you do than how well you relate to the boss. Sure, the 49ers had a mediocre season (8-8) that kept them out of the playoffs for the first time in three years. But if mediocrity or worse were the real standard, Tom Coughlin wouldn’t be staying on as coach of the New York Giants. And Rex Ryan would’ve been gone from the New York Jets years ago. Instead he and Harbaugh are both exiting at the same time.

There’s also been talk that Harbaugh “lost the locker room,” particularly in his eagerness to get rid of former Niners’ quarterback Alex Smith. But it was clear after the team’s 20-17 victory over the Arizona Cardinals that the Niners went all out to win one for the Gipper, so to speak – to end their season and Harbaugh’s tenure on a high note. Nor would a team led by a temperamental coach who is said to be even more emotional in the clubhouse be likely to award that coach the game ball or shower him with ice water after the game if the members weren’t fond of him.  Football players are not actors.

No, the people who work for you can’t cost you your job unless there’s total failure or mutiny. The people you work for – that’s something else. Perhaps Harbaugh proved too independent or too egotistical. Hey, maybe owner Ted York or general manager Trent Baalke just grew to dislike him and saw an opportunity at last to remove him.

You need to get along with your boss, but you can’t be tied to a boss either lest you risk being swept out with him or her. That’s the problem facing Colin Kaepernick, handpicked by Harbaugh to replace Smith even after Smith returned from a concussion in 2012. It was interesting to watch Kaepernick’s post-game conference, in which he was both heartfelt and cagey. It was apparent from his remarks – which while never effusive were nonetheless articulate – that he and Harbaugh shared a father-son relationship and that he’ll always feel an affectionate admiration for him and gratitude for what Harbaugh has done for him.  (He’s said as much on Instagram.) But when he was asked if he spoke to management on Harbaugh’s behalf, Kaepernick demurred. He said that was not his job.

People forget that football is a job, a glamorous one but a job nonetheless. My upcoming novel, “The Penalty for Holding,” is very much about the workplace and football as a workplace where New York Templars’ star quarterback Quinn Novak soon runs afoul of coach Pat Smalley and discovers that even excellence isn’t good enough.