SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Jed York is not the same kind of person or owner as he was when he let Jim Harbaugh go nine years ago, which grows clearer and more significant for the San Francisco 49ers every single day.
And the picture clarity was at an all-time high on Thursday afternoon, when York made a rare media appearance in the Levi’s Stadium media room — to answer questions about his team’s berth in Super Bowl LVIII against the Kansas City Chiefs on Feb. 11 in Las Vegas — coincidentally just about simultaneous to Harbaugh’s introductory news conference in Southern California as the Los Angeles Chargers coach.
York was reflective and at times a little emotional in his 20-minute session with reporters, praising head coach Kyle Shanahan’s honesty, quarterback Brock Purdy’s rise, the team’s culture and pointing out the need for everyone with the 49ers to enjoy this moment. There was perspective. There was steadiness. There was none of the impetuousness and impatience that led York to pick then-general manager Trent Baalke over Harbaugh at the end of the 2014 season and hire and fire Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly in back-to-back years.
It’s easy for an owner to sound calm and collected when his team is going to the Super Bowl, but it’s also the calm and collected owners whose teams more often get to the Super Bowl. Then York and I talked about Harbaugh landing back in the NFL after winning the national championship with Michigan last month.
“I congratulated him when they won the championship game,” York said. “We’ve texted back and forth. I think Jim is a helluva coach. I think it’s a great spot for him. I’m excited for the Chargers. I think they’ll be very, very successful.”
Is this maybe a similar situation to what Harbaugh inherited when he took over the 49ers in January 2011?
“I think it’s a team that had talent that didn’t sort of achieve what they hoped to,” York said. “I don’t want to speak too much about somebody else’s team, but it’s certainly a talented team. And I think he has a chance to do really, really well with the Chargers.”
York mending fences with Harbaugh after the bitter rupture definitely isn’t the most important development of his ownership tenure, but it’s one of the most telling. How has this happened? Shanahan and GM John Lynch have created an atmosphere that moved the team and York past the petty feuds. I also think that York can see exactly what winning football looks and feels like and can identify what was valuable and special about Harbaugh’s 49ers tenure, even while Harbaugh was giving everybody headaches.
York notably scheduled the 49ers’ 10th anniversary celebration of Harbaugh’s 2012 Super Bowl team during Michigan’s bye week last season. Harbaugh showed up. During a dinner at the festivities, York invited Harbaugh to the stage, and the two men shared a moment together.
“We had connected a little bit before that,” York said. “And then we invited him to come out and told him that we set it up for that week because Michigan had a bye that week. And you’re celebrating the 10th anniversary of a team going to a Super Bowl. It means something.
“And I think with anything, people mature, time passes and you tend to remember a lot more of the good things than maybe the not-so-good things. I’m happy for him. Again, he’s heckuva coach.”
York would’ve said none of those words five or six years ago. He’s saying them now. He means them. Which all connects to York’s broader mood, starting with a halftime moment with his 11-year-old son Jaxon during last Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, when the 49ers trailed the Detroit Lions 24-7.
“I was good; my son was, like, on the verge of tears,” York said during the group session. “He just started playing flag football, really getting into it. So he brings his football with him everywhere. … He’s sitting there and he’s ready to cry. I’m like, ‘Bud, our friends are here, our family’s here. We’re in the NFC Championship Game. There’s worse things in the world. We’re healthy, we’re happy. I keep telling you, you’ve gotta do well when there’s pressure. So let’s throw the ball now.’
“So he’s winging it with me in the suite; that calmed everybody down.” York was almost overcome with emotion when he said this, then continued: “It was a good moment.”
York was also not interested in assessing extra urgency to winning this Super Bowl after losing in a previous try four years ago in Shanahan’s third season, also against the Chiefs. No, he wasn’t going to say that the 49ers have to win now before their championship window closes.
“When you talk about windows, like, I just think that’s such a B.S. concept in this league,” York said. “Because you never know when you’re going to have the opportunity to be here. You have to make the most of it. You have to celebrate it. … Very, very few people have the opportunity to go play in this game, let alone win it. You have to be able to take it in in the moment. …
“This is not easy to get here. And if you don’t appreciate the moment, then shame on you. But you have to focus on what needs to be done. We’re going to do everything we can to play our best football game.”
Some other highlights from York’s group session and conversation with me afterward …
• While Shanahan has broadly said he told York early last training camp that Purdy, then a rookie fourth-stringer behind Trey Lance, Jimmy Garoppolo and Nate Sudfeld, was doing extremely well, York filled in some details and added some color to that story.
York said that Shanahan pulled him aside after a practice and informed him that Purdy might be their best quarterback, eventually, that they would go ahead with the plan to play Lance, but that Purdy was the guy to watch. Of course, Lance got hurt in Week 2, Garoppolo filled in, won a bunch of games but then got hurt himself and Purdy took the job over in early December and probably will have it for many, many seasons.
“One thing that owners don’t love to hear when they’ve invested money and/or draft picks or both into people, that the last pick in the draft is the guy we think is the best,” York said with a smile. “That’s generally not great news. But (Shanahan is) honest. And he let it play out the right way.”
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• York told me that part of his big-picture view of Shanahan came the year before he was hired, back when York strongly considered hiring his father, Mike Shanahan, as coach (but instead chose Kelly).
“We were close (to choosing Mike Shanahan),” York said. “And that was part of it, where I asked him, ‘Would you bring Kyle with you? Somebody so we can transition and keep this.’ And he’s like, ‘Well, I don’t know.’ They had already done that. They had already worked together.
“But my feeling was clearly Mike Shanahan is and was a better football coach than the two people we hired instead of him, in Jimmy T. and Chip. No disrespect to those guys, Mike Shanahan is a Hall of Famer. I wasn’t looking for somebody that was going to be here for four years. I wanted somebody that’s going to be here for, you know, a decade, two decades, more. That’s what I want. And I think Kyle is that person.”
• In the group session, York was asked about how the result in Super Bowl LVIII could drastically affect the outside perception of Shanahan and whether it might change his own perception.
“I love Kyle,” York said. “It would be hard for me to say that I’ve enjoyed working with anybody more than I enjoy working with Kyle. I think Kyle’s a phenomenal coach, and he’s done a phenomenal job with our club. I mean, I don’t really care what the outside perception is. It is very, very difficult to make the playoffs. It’s very difficult to get to a championship. It’s very difficult to win a championship game. It’s more difficult to get to this game. And I think Kyle’s results more than speak for themselves.”
• With assistant GM Adam Peters leaving recently to take the top job with the Washington Commanders, I asked York if he believes Lynch, who considered an extravagant offer to broadcast games for Amazon more than a year ago, is locked into place with the 49ers.
“I don’t see John leaving anytime soon,” York said. “We’re excited to have John and Kyle here for a long time.”
• How big of a loss is Peters, who was Lynch’s first hire back in 2017?
“Any time you lose good people, it’s tough,” York said. “But I think this group is used to losing good people. I think we’ve had three people become GMs outside of here and three or four head coaches? So it’s a good problem to have.”
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• Here’s York on the 49ers’ mindset when they were on the verge of trading four draft picks to Carolina (and outbidding the Rams) to acquire Christian McCaffrey last October:
“(Shanahan) thought it was a lot to give up for a running back, and I think John and I thought it was just the right amount to give up for Christian,” York said. “I remember that very vividly. Where he said, ‘Look, it’s not a pass rusher, it’s not a quarterback, it’s a good player, do we want to give up that much?’ And collectively it was, like, ‘Do you want him to go to L.A.?’”
“As someone who plays poker a little bit, you don’t go all-in on six-jack off-suit. When you have a pair of jacks, or ace-king, you might not win the hand, but that’s the time that you want to push your chips into the middle, and I feel that’s where we were with Christian.”
• What does York remember from losing to the Chiefs four years ago?
“I remember Nick Bosa getting held on third-and-long and that not getting called,” York said. “It’s football, right? I should say this, I haven’t talked to anybody with Detroit. I feel for them when you’re in a situation where you’re up and you think you can win a game and make it memorable and things go the wrong way. I’ve been on good sides of that and bad sides of that.
“When you’re up by 10 points against a team in a Super Bowl, you know, thoughts are going through your head, like, ‘Wow, we’re going to have a parade. Somebody’s going to Disneyland. This is going to be awesome.’ And then you don’t. And that’s part of playing in the NFL.”
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(Top photo of the 49ers owner Jed York celebrating Sunday’s NFC Championship Game victory: Michael Zagaris / San Francisco 49ers / Getty Images)