Lowell Cohn: 49ers mishandled sod story from start

SANTA CLARA — The crowning touch, the detail that made the 49ers ludicrous was Sal Castaneda and the traffic helicopter.

The 49ers were trying to keep a secret — the field in Levi's Stadium was dangerous at all speeds. It sucked.

On Wednesday afternoon, Jim Harbaugh had yanked his players off the field, in front of fans, because players were falling down on the slick grass and might hurt themselves, and because clumps of the alleged miracle sod were coming loose. After one exhibition game.

KTVU's NewsChopper 2, in close communication with Sal back at Channel 2 studios, flew by the stadium at 8:41 a.m. Thursday morning. NewsChopper 2 took photos. NewsChopper 2 tweeted the photos. What did we see? No grass in the amazing new stadium, from sideline to sideline and end zone to end zone. Grass still lay in the end zones and on the sidelines. You might say the stadium was half-grassed. You might say Jed York and his lieutenants were half-grassed.

It's never good to be half-grassed.

It's even worse when you're trying to keep a secret you never should keep from Sal and NewsChopper 2 — and us.

The 49ers handled the Grass Fiasco the worst way. Until they finally handled it right. This is a classic tale of mismanagement, reflecting badly on Jed. I'm talking to you, Jed.

Before NewsChopper 2 tweeted the truth about the field, the 49ers had issued only one statement relating to the Grass Fiasco. This was not an official statement. This was a tweet from a public relations guy. 'We have determined the appropriate measures necessary to have the field ready for Sunday and look forward to hosting the San Diego Chargers.'

That was nice to know. The tweet, which arrived Wednesday afternoon, never stated what the problem was, nor did it explain the solution. Nor was it an official statement from the team. The team makes official statements on an official form via email. This casual, unofficial statement was trying to obscure things more than explain things.

Jed, God love him, wanted all the praise for the stadium when things were going well. Go to the Levi's Stadium website — yes, it has a website. Read about the Bourbon and Steak Pub at the stadium: 'Features elements of a modern American steakhouse showcasing creative interpretations of classic dishes.'


Drive to the stadium and take a tour of the 49ers museum.


Read this description of the stadium, provided by the 49ers: 'Levi's Stadium is one of the world's best outdoor sports and entertainment venues.'

Great. But can you get the grass right?

When things went wrong, Jed wanted none of the blame. He pretended no problem existed. He hid under his bed. He tried to sneak the re-sodding of the bad field past the entire civilized world.

Sal and the chopper outed you, Jed.

Even after KTVU tweeted the photos, the 49ers stayed mum. They allowed Thursday to pass without a syllable about their big problem. Conveniently for them, no media access had been scheduled for Thursday. The schedule came out long before the Grass Fiasco.

Then came Friday, Jim Harbaugh's day to talk in the fancy new auditorium. It's revealing that the Niners perfected the auditorium before they perfected the grass.

The Niners mandate that the media stay in their holding pen until a PR person leads them to the auditorium. The PR guy usually leads us along a certain route which gives a field view. On Friday, he took another route which did not give a field view. More Jed sneakiness.

But Jed was dealing with journalists. Any journalist worth his paycheck already had walked to the field and looked around. I sure did. No field in place.

Now came the big moment, the moment Jed hung Harbaugh out to dry. Harbaugh walked onto the stage where he answers football questions. Today the subject was grass. Here is a sample of the Q & A.

Q: What's your understanding of what's going on with the field right now and will it be ready for Sunday's game?

A: My understanding is yes. What's going on is a new grass field is being put down and will be ready for Sunday.

Q: What were your concerns that led you to call off, to shut down practice a couple of days ago?

A: I just felt like there was too much slipping going on. And, as it relates to the field, the action's been taken. We're refitting, regrouping, retooling and the new field is going in. Once again, it's our organization, we can count on them to always do things at the highest level and that's what's in process now and look forward to playing the game on Sunday.'

Q: Has anyone told you why it wasn't better and the fact that it was a lot worse on Wednesday?

A: No. And as far as diving into this and peeling back the onion, what for? We are getting a new field in. It will be in there for Sunday. It will be very good for this week. Our organization will always do things at the highest level.'

Q: But, is there no concern that they couldn't get it right the first time, they might not be able to get it right the second time? There's no concern about that?

A: We're regrouping, retooling. What more can I say about it? We can count on our organization to always do things at the highest level.'

Let's interrupt Harbaugh a moment and say the organization did not do things at the highest level. The grass wasn't at the highest level.

And asking Harbaugh, a football coach, to get grilled by reporters about grass was at the lowest level.

Then I asked two questions:

Cohn: Are you an expert on grass?

Harbaugh: I am not. I am not.

Cohn: How do you like talking for the organization about grass?

Harbaugh: I think I've done well. I think I've handled your questions honestly and accurately and we're going to make it right. It'll be right. We have total confidence in that. What more is there to whittle away at here?

Harbaugh was being a good sport, taking the hit for Jed. No way Jed should have allowed Harbaugh to answer a single question about a single blade of grass. Jed should have brought in a grass expert to address the media so his coach didn't have to squirm.

I'm talking to you, Jed.

Later, the 49ers sent out a news release — not a tweet — announcing high school football games scheduled for late August at Levi's Stadium had been rescheduled for October. That made sense considering the 49ers may have to put down yet another field after the Chargers exhibition game. Nowhere in the release did the Niners explain why they are changing the schedule. More Jed sneakiness.

Finally, Jed made a grass guy available to the media on Friday afternoon. The man spoke candidly and at length and assured the media it is not unusual for fields to get replaced. He said he will solve the problem. This man should have spoken on Thursday. The 49ers should have been totally candid about their problem from the get-go. That's how you get everyone on your side. 'Oh, Jed screwed up the grass. It could happen to anyone. He's doing his best to fix it.'

Instead, Jed gave the story national importance by being sneaky and he embarrassed his coach and he made things worse than they were. Jed has come a long way. Jed still has lots to learn.

I'm talking to you, Jed.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at

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