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Bartz was the best CEO for Yahoo. Maybe

“We always concluded we couldn’t find anyone better than Carol.”

That comment came from a board director of a company helmed by Carol Bartz. As you can imagine, the company wasn’t Yahoo (YHOO) — its board unceremoniously fired Bartz on Tuesday — but Autodesk (ADSK). As a profile of Bartz by G. Pascal Zachary pointed out in 2004, Autodesk saw its stock rise fivefold in one year, thanks to Bartz’ effort to turn the company around. That turnaround involved several years and multiple setbacks, but the payoff was well worth the wait.

As for Yahoo, when all is said and done, its own board members might end up echoing the sentiment of that Autodesk director: maybe there wasn’t a better CEO for Yahoo than Carol Bartz. Which is to say that Yahoo simply can’t be turned around. A few names have been offered as replacements for Bartz, and none instill confidence that they’ll be able to support engineers, foster innovation and move Yahoo back to the center of the web any better than Bartz did.

You can see that sentiment sinking into the mindset of Yahoo shareholders. The stock initially rose as high as $13.93 Wednesday, or 8% above Tuesday’s close, but drifted down to $13.30 as the day wore on.

Bartz’s track record at Yahoo is mixed, and grew increasingly spotty toward the end. When Bartz joined Yahoo as CEO in January 2009, the stock was trading around $12 a share, slightly below its level today. Yahoo has severely underperformed its peers since then. The Nasdaq is up 61% during the Bartz era, while Google (GOOG) is up 70% and Amazon (AMZN) is up 292%.

Making matters worse, Bartz received a pay package that promised her $187 million over four years, provided she could revive Yahoo’s stock price back to $25 a share (a predecessor, Terry Semel, earned $570 million over six years). In 2009, the AP calculated, she was the highest paid CEO among leaders of S&P 500 companies, receiving $47.2 million. A year later, she took a 75% pay cut.

As Miguel Helft pointed out, Bartz’s early bold moves — shutting down the archaic GeoCities sites and the search partnership with Microsoft (MSFT) — did little to turn things around. Soon, engineering talent was streaming out the doors again. Bartz’s approval ratings among her employees slid from 90% after her arrival to 24% this summer. And if the ugly fight with Jack Ma over AliPay wasn’t a bad enough failure, Yahoo’s revenue disappointed in the second quarter of 2011. Some analysts took the firing of Bartz as a sign that the third quarter’s numbers would be just as bleak.

But overlooked in many of the post-mortems of Bartz’s tenure at Yahoo is that, from a shareholder’s perspective, she accomplished as much as anyone could have at Yahoo. As the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal said, Bartz “milked money from a dying cash cow, like she was supposed to do,” increasing Yahoo’s net income by 52% in the last 10 quarters over the same period before her arrival.

In 2011, there are really two types of companies in the web industry. One type is the lean startup, driven by a core group of creative engineers with a vision that could just as easily succeed as fail. The other is typically a larger company maintaining a patchwork of services designed years, perhaps decades, ago.

Yahoo is clearly in the latter camp. It’s never going to innovate its way out of its quagmire, it won’t ever again set a standard for others to follow, and its past attempts to buy companies that did set an innovative standard — like Flickr and delicious — ended badly. Yahoo curates profitable ad content, and that’s all it needs to do. It will never return to its glory days of 1999, it will be hard enough to keep Google and Facebook from stealing ad dollars from big advertisers.

After Bartz, Yahoo’s board has several options — hiring a CEO from inside or outside the company, selling off Asian assets and distributing some gains to shareholders or selling the whole company to private equity firm or another media company. And as dramatic as some of these sound, they won’t change the reality that Yahoo is dying very slowly, but it has years of profitable growth ahead of it. Which is what Bartz accomplished.

For all Bartz’s flaws, Yahoo is unlikely to be better off in the long run without her. Depending on where she lands in her next job, Bartz may be a lot better off without Yahoo.