Stanford Cardinal football head coach Jim Harbaugh is at the peak of his powers. He's led the Cardinal from the ignominy of the Walt Harris era to the top of the heap in college football. Stanford went from 1-11 in 2006 to 11-1, the #4 overall ranking, and a BCS berth in the Orange Bowl four seasons later. He is, by all accounts, one of the most successful coaches in the history of the program.
Unfortunately, this is where things usually unravel for the Cardinal. Because after only a short run of success, modern coaches have tended to bolt from these safe environs for higher, more prestigious openings.
- John Ralston brought Stanford to two Pac-10 titles and two consecutive Rose Bowl berths in 1970-71. Ralston was coaching the Denver Broncos the next season.
- Bill Walsh led the Cardinal to two consecutive bowl seasons, earning one 2nd place finish, going 17-7 through that stretch in 1977-78. The next year he was still in the Bay Area and still doused in red...only it was for the San Francisco 49ers, and he was about to draft Joe Montana.
- Dennis Green led the Cardinal to an 8-4 season, a second place finish in the conference and an Aloha Bowl berth in 1991. The next year he was the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings.
- Ty Willingham took Stanford to their last Rose Bowl berth back in 1999 and a few other winning seasons along the way. That was enough for Notre Dame to hire him.
So is Harbaugh next? We take a look at the biggest possibilties.
NFL team (Carolina Panthers, San Francisco 49ers, etc.)
Taking the path of so many others, he could try and land a gig with the cream of the crop. As the leader of a tough-minded, power offense, he immediately displays the qualities of a coach that can replicate that level of success at the next level. There are a lot of choices for a pro team, but what would be most tantalizing is if he could end up with whomever gets the first pick in the NFL Draft ... who would likely be his current quarterback Andrew Luck (if he decided to turn pro). Carolina, with John Fox likely on his way out, would be ripe for the taking.
There's a lot to like. He'd get to join his brother John in the pros and prove that he's just as capable of being a successful coach. He'd become one of the quirkier personalities in a league that embraces press conference quotes, bizarre headlines, and that sort of "winning attitude" that media-types love to pontificate.
Here's the big question though: Would Harbaugh be just as savvy at evaluating pro personnel as he is at building a strong collegiate team? Would he be willing to wait a few years to have a team that low build up from the top? Of course, the special relationship he and Luck share could be a deciding factor.
If he doesn't want to wait that long? Enter San Francisco, a team that seems to be only a few pieces away from playoff runs. Harbaugh wouldn't have to move from his Bay Area spot (especially with the team on the move to Santa Clara), and he could help revitalize a franchise that's been searching for that next elusive step. Perhaps he trades up to get Luck, or he goes in another direction to get the pieces he wants to build the team he desires. Although I'm sure San Francisco fans are a little skittish about hiring another coach with primarily college experience (it's been a LONG time since Walsh and Steve Mariucci), they'll probably get over it to rid themselves of the stench of the disappointing Mike Singletary era.
Harbaugh's a Michigan man, and he coaches Michigan style. Extra offensive linemen, power run, I-formation heavy football? Sign up every fan over the age of 50 (and when it comes to Wolverine football, there's a lot of those).
People at Michigan bemoan how slow the rise back from obscurity things have been with Rich Rodriguez. And a lot of college football fans know how stodgy Wolverine fans and alumni can be--when they get impatient, things can get ugly fast.
On the other hand, Harbaugh has pretty much been linked to the Michigan job forever, but I'm not so sure this is where he'll end up. For one, Michigan has devoted themselves to recruiting spread players for the past three years to get the type of team Rodriguez wants for his offense. To renege on that effort just to hire a hot talent seems like a big risk, and could mean another three to four years of rebuilding for a Wolverine program that seems on the verge of turning the corner. Would Harbaugh be willing to wait that out? And is Rodriguez actually going to get fired? Mum's the word at Michigan, meaning we're in for a long month of rampant speculation for the Maize and Blue.
Also, Scott Wolf says he'd go to Michigan. We've already shown why that isn't very likely.
Why leave when the going's good? Harbaugh will never feel any real pressure at Stanford the way he would at Michigan or in the pros. He's free to do as he please with minimal interference and no real media crunch in the laid-back South Bay environment. He could struggle for the next decade and not win ten games for another five to six years, and he'd still be in plum shape to be Stanford's coach.
The only real question is legacy. As a college football coach, you can only be considered so great for so long doing what Harbaugh does at a middling program with minimal fan support. If you go to Michigan or the NFL and become successful with a franchise, you get to be one of the immortals (like Walsh) in football lore. Could that be the deciding factor that finally drives him to make a bigger name for himself?
It's shaping up to be one intriguing winter for the hottest coach in America.