In the end, former Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh took the same road once travelled by Bill Walsh -- from the Cardinal to the 49ers -- though he did it with quite a bit more fanfare and drama. The 49ers have announced that Harbaugh will be their new head coach, agreeing to a reported five-year, $25 million deal.
After leading the Cardinal to a 40-14 Orange Bowl victory over Virginia Tech, Harbaugh talked with the Miami Dolphins, Denver Broncos and 49ers about the possibilities with each team, including a cross-country flight taken by Dolphins owner Stephen Ross to try and convince Harbaugh to take his talents to South Beach. But in the end -- and after Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck most certainly took himself out of first-overall pick status by returning to school for his junior season -- Harbaugh decided to stay closer to home. San Francisco and Stanford engaged in some heavy bidding for the coach's services, and we'll find out more about why Harbaugh chose the NFL when he speaks to the media at 3:30 p.m. PST Friday.
The Dolphins' offer was especially confusing for current head coach Tony Sparano, and several recent reports indicated that while the jilted Fins have been trying to bang out a small extension with Sparano, they also scheduled and cancelled a meeting with recently fired Cleveland Browns coach Eric Mangini.
Hmmm. Any idea why Harbaugh might have found that situation a little less than desirable?
In any case, the former NFL quarterback and architect of Stanford's recent miracle turnaround has another rehabilitation project on his hands. The 49ers are a team with some talent that underperformed under former head coach Mike Singletary. The team's first and most glaring need is for a quarterback, unless Harbaugh sees enough in either Alex or Troy Smith(notes) to go forward.
"I met this man about six or seven years ago at a college All-star Game, and I kind of fell in love with his energy," new GM Trent Baalke said at the Friday news conference announcing the Harbaugh hire. "He had passion, and in order to succeed in this business, I think you have to have that. It really became evident that this guy has the "It factor - he had what we were looking for."
When he came to the podium, Harbaugh talked about his vision for the team. "I have unshakable confidence and great faith in human agency - in human beings, and their desire to be part of a team. I can't wait to meet (the players). There are marquee players, All-Pro players, guys who have been there before. Hard workers, guys that have given their bodies and minds to be part of a team and win for each other. The first order of business will be to contact those guys and start to get to know them."
"I accept this competitive challenge willingly."
"I view it as the perfect opportunity; the perfect competitive platform, with these pros and with the level playing field," Harbaugh said when asked why he made the decision to leave Stanford for the NFL. "The chance to be part of a team that goes after the highest award in all of sports, and that's the Lombardi Trophy. I leave Stanford and those players, which I look at and probably always will look at as signature years. Wonderful years. Got married there, had two children in Palo Alto. And the love I had for those players, and we had for each other. Remarkable things were accomplished, and it's with humility and a little bit of a heavy heart that I leave Stanford and our football team. But the chance to compete at the highest level was overwhelming to me."
Harbaugh knows of what he speaks - as a 14-year NFL quarterback and one-time Pro Bowler from 1987 through 2000, he threw for 26,288 yards and 129 touchdowns at that highest level. He also said at the opening presser that he will install the West Coast offense.
Harbaugh, whose brother John coaches the Baltimore Ravens and has a 32-16 regular-season record in three seasons (3-2 in the playoffs), is now one half of the only team of brothers ever to coach in the NFL at the same time. Per the NFL schedule released recently, the 49ers and Ravens are expected to play in the 2011 season - provided there is a 2011 season.
As for Stanford, it still has Luck (at least for the time being, one never knows what Harbaugh's decision not to come back will do to that), and a good shot at the Pac-10. It'll undoubtedly be looking for a coach who knows how to run a pro-style offense and can deal well with quarterbacks, because whoever that coach may be, he's walking into a dream scenario with Luck as his leader.
For Harbaugh, the time was probably right to make the jump, but he'll see some uncertainty with his new team as the rebuild begins. We'll have more about this through the day, including Pete Carroll's rather humorous take on the whole Harbaugh drama.
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- Jim Harbaugh