Stanford may be the hottest football program in the Pac-10 right now. That also means Jim Harbaugh is the hottest football coach in the conference. Which probably implies that the likeliest person to be coaching at another program next season is...Jim Harbaugh.
Last year, the plaudits were already pouring in. Ann Killion of SI gave him the aforementioned 'hottest coach' label. The Wall Street Journal labeled him the perfect coach. No, really.
If you set out to build the perfect coaching résumé, you might settle on something that's close to Mr. Harbaugh's.
He's a rah-rah guy who declared "we bow to no program here at Stanford" soon after his arrival. He has paid his dues outside the limelight—his previous coaching job was at the University of San Diego. He's a former quarterback who once guaranteed Michigan would beat Ohio State and delivered, and who took the Indianapolis Colts within a Hail Mary of the Super Bowl. He has NFL coaching experience and has coaching in his blood: His father, Jack, coached Western Kentucky, and his brother John is head coach of the Baltimore Ravens.
From the time he was "5 or 6," Mr. Harbaugh says, "I've wanted to play as long as I could, then coach, then die."
But what sets Mr. Harbaugh apart is that he is doing all this at the Harvard of the West, where top talent is often unattainable. And unlike coaches in similar situations, who have turned to gimmick offenses to compensate for the talent gap, he's winning with a power running attack.
Harbaugh has received a lot of fanfare for pretty average results. His teams have gone 4-8, 5-7 and 8-5 with one bowl appearance. With the Cardinal trying to keep their Rose Bowl hopes alive last season, Harbaugh's team flunked at home against one of the weakest Cal teams of the decade. Still, the former NFL quarterback has the Cardinal looming on the precipice of Pasadena in 2010.
The big question: Is it the first of many times, or the first and the last?
The door remains ajar for Harbaugh to exit Palo Alto whenever he feels it most convenient for him to go. He has never firmly committed to even coaching them for any definite period of time when the Kansas/NFL rumors surfaced.
When asked at his contract-extension press conference in mid-December about NFL possibilities, Harbaugh wouldn’t even guarantee he’d coach Stanford next fall: "Nobody has promised that. I’m not going to write anything in blood on a stone tablet."
Plus that rumor about the so-called Michigan clause in his contract won't go away (and yes they do exist: Urban Meyer had something similar in his Utah contract). The Harbaugh-to-Michigan wheel has been turning as long as Rich Rodriguez remains trapped in the "produce-wins-or-else" mentality. Failure by Rodriguez to accomplish that allows Harbaugh to swoop in and save his alma mater from the abyss. Saving Michigan football would outweigh anything he could ever do at Stanford.
Cal fans once had the same apprehension that Jeff Tedford would soon be on his way out when he produced a Rose Bowl-worthy season in 2004. The Athletic Department paid generously for him to stay on, and he has shown a greater commitment to the program that goes beyond achieving mere glory. It's not likely that Stanford would do the same for Harbaugh, and whether he'd show the same loyalty that Tedford did. It remains to be seen if the Cardinal head coach's greatest glories will come in the Bay Area or reach far beyond it.