San Francisco 49ers were title-ready before Jim Harbaugh joined

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Jed York's October 2010 proclamation might have been made largely of frustration. Or maybe it was denial, of the reality that the San Francisco 49ers' eighth straight non-winning season was on the horizon.

But what was lunacy then looks like clairvoyance now.

It's not that what the Niners CEO was predicting -- that his 0-5 team would win the NFC West -- would come true. It didn't. It was in York's reasoning, which stemmed from his belief that a sturdy foundation had been built in Santa Clara, even with some pieces crumbling around it.

That belief kept York from blowing up the Niners completely in 2011. It led him to push current general manager Trent Baalke to find current coach Jim Harbaugh. It prompted York to encourage the new regime to augment rather than detonate a roster, a staff and a program.

Yes, the Niners' trip to the Super Bowl after 18 years away is, in large part, about the brilliant job Harbaugh has done since he became their coach in January 2011. But it's also about something that's been building for eight years, not just two, and the wisdom that the organization exhibited in resisting the urge to start over despite being in a spot that would have prompted many other teams to do just that.

Turns out, York's instinct was dead on -- the players downstairs from his corner office indeed had more in them.

"If a Fortune 500 company fires its CEO, they don't fire everybody in the organization and start fresh," York said in Santa Clara last week. "They might cut out some of the dead weight. But they keep the top performers, they keep the people that are part of the fabric of the company. And that's what I looked at here."

Fifteen of the Niners' 22 starters predate Harbaugh's arrival (Editor's Note: see table at the bottom of this page). The GM, Baalke, was an internal hire, in San Francisco for six years before being picked for his current post in 2011. Likewise, the scouting staff remains largely intact, and there are four holdovers on the coaching staff from former head man Mike Singletary's final group.

So the fingerprints remain of ex-GM Scot McCloughan (in the construct of the roster) and former coach Mike Nolan (in the team's physical edge). York says both men deserve credit.

One thing that helped the San Francisco brass keep the faith: the comments they got from other teams, about how the Niners' defense had beaten them up or how the club wasn't far away. The same sentiment was felt, especially, in the locker room.

"We knew that we had the guys in the locker room," said running back Frank Gore, part of the first draft class of the McCloughan-Nolan regime. "When you look at the games, we always fought; we never could finish. And we'd lose by three points, seven points. We didn't ever finish. We knew we had the players and the talent; we just had to get the right people to lead us."

That very conclusion is one York came to after the 2010 opener. The Niners dominated the first 25 minutes of the game, but they'd built just a 6-0 lead and wound up losing 31-6 to the Seattle Seahawks. The CEO was going to give Singletary the benefit of the doubt, -- and the season -- to prove him wrong, but he wasn't going to wait to prepare for the franchise's next move.

York told Baalke, then the director of player personnel, at the beginning of October that though he wasn't giving him the vacant general manager spot (McCloughan and the Niners had parted ways in March), he wanted him to act as if the job was his and come up with a plan to get the Niners out of the woods. Task No. 1 was finding Singletary's replacement.

At the end of October, Baalke said to York, "Jim is the right guy."

Harbaugh, working down the road at Stanford,  was a hot name in the area, so it wasn't as if the idea to hire him was a groundbreaking one. It was how Baalke arrived at the decision that impressed York. He liked how Harbaugh cultivated NFL talent at Division I-AA San Diego, how he won one particular college all-star game with a deficient roster, and the way he built a staff, excelled as a teacher, worked the quarterback position and won at Stanford.

"It was that process, knowing that Trent knows what he's doing, as opposed to somebody coming in and saying, 'I wanna hire Jim', " York said. "OK, that's great, but a broken clock is right twice a day; how did you get to the right answer? Trent knows how to get the right answer."

After they landed Harbaugh, York and Baalke -- who had by then been named the GM -- gave the coach three lists. The first named assistants they strongly suggested he keep. The second listed those who were good coaches but should be evaluated. The third was filled with guys who needed to go. As it turned out, Harbaugh adhered closely to the suggestions.

Then there was the roster. The message, from York, was that this was a playoff-caliber roster, and that while there weren't high expectations for this team, they thought they could surprise some people.

Harbaugh agreed, saying on Monday that "just watching the tape" backed up that thought. The coach added that, "One conversation at a time with the players, getting to know them, we realized that we had a lot of character and we had a lot of talent."

Indeed, the Niners' four captains -- Gore, Alex Smith, Patrick Willis and Justin Smith -- were acquired by McCloughan and Nolan. They have a combined 27 seasons with the club, validation that Harbaugh's eyes and instincts weren't deceiving him when it came to the holdovers.

Because of the presence of guys like those, the starry draft class of 2011, headed by Colin Kaepernick and Aldon Smith, didn't signify the start of the process. Instead, it put the finishing touches on a complete team. Identifying that class was a personnel staff full of guys who had survived the regime shift. And helping lead it are vital assistants like Mike Solari, Tom Rathman and Jim Tomsula, who coached for Singletary, as well as long-time strength coach Mark Uyeyama and head trainer Jeff Ferguson.

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York's vision -- to "win with class," like his uncle Eddie DeBartolo did -- hasn't changed. What he learned through a time in which the Niners had six offensive coordinators in six years was that every piece to the puzzle counts, and that's why the club pulled every lever, new and old, to get to where it is now.

And when you get to where that's landed the team, you actually can find a new beginning with these Niners. Only five of their starters (Jonathan Goodwin, Randy Moss, Isaac Sopoaga, Justin Smith and Carlos Rogers) are in their 30s. So the hope is that as one long, bumpy journey comes to an end, San Francisco will now start a new one.

Given that youth and talent, York concedes the Niners could be back to "what my expectation was as a kid" and that the feeling "reminds me of old times." But he also cautions that the goal hasn't been -- and can't be -- reached this year alone.

"I don't care if you make it to the NFC Championship Game and then lose, you make it into the Super Bowl, win or lose," York continued. "That's this year. What are you gonna do next year? How are you gonna continue to win, continue to improve, continue to stay at the top? And that means you're gonna have to continue to get better. We're not where we want to be. We're competing for it, but this has to be something that's sustained."

And if the expectation to stay here for a while might be raising the bar, it's understandable. After all, it did take awhile -- much more than two years -- for the Niners to get back here.

A look at how the San Francisco 49ers' roster was built (with current starters marked by an asterisk):

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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