Whatever hopes Stanford has of staging an encore to its 12-1, Orange Bowl-winning climb into the top five in 2011, they got a major boost Thursday when quarterback Andrew Luck effectively turned down millions as the NFL's No. 1 overall draft pick to remain in school. Twenty-four hours later, though, the band is officially breaking up: As expected, coach Jim Harbaugh has agreed to move across the bay as the latest savior of the San Francisco 49ers. He's reportedly reached a five-year deal, to be formally announced at 6:30 p.m. ET.
Well, it was fun while it lasted. When Harbaugh first returned in Palo Alto in 2007, he was generally considered a gamble by a desperate program at rock-bottom, all of five years removed from the end of his playing career in the NFL and fresh from an obscure I-AA program (the University of San Diego) that doesn't award athletic scholarships. His first major act as head coach: Insulting the academic standards at his alma mater. His second major act: Presiding over the greatest upset in college football history, according to the oddsmakers, a 24-23 comeback win at No. 1 USC, a staggering 41-point favorite. Two years later, he had the Cardinal in their first bowl game since 2001, blowing out eventual Pac-10 champ Oregon and hanging 55 on USC in the L.A. Coliseum, the most points ever allowed by a Trojan team in any venue.
His fourth season was Stanford's best in at least 70 years, a 12-1 romp by an average margin of more than three touchdowns per game, capped by Monday night's 40-12 blowout over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl. Somehow, the Cardinal lost their first Heisman finalist since John Elway in 1982, thundering running back Toby Gerhart, and got significantly better the following season.
Luck's return made him an instant frontrunner for the trophy in 2011, and made Stanford an instant contender to win the newly expanded Pac-12. But Harbaugh always seemed aimed at the NFL in the long term, seemingly spending most of his face time with the media over the last two offseasons fending off rumors that he's headed for the pros or evading questions about his contract status. Eventually, the timing is just right: Stanford was likely as good in 2010 as it's ever going to be in the foreseeable future, and the market for Harbaugh's services as high as it's going to be, with at least three NFL teams and one of the most high-profile programs in the country openly courting him.
And with this job, he doesn't have to move from his current house. Opportunities like that don't along very often. Neither do Orange Bowls, Heisman finalists and No. 1 draft picks at Stanford. Cardinal fans should make an extra effort to enjoy Luck's unlikely comeback, before the clock strikes midnight in 365 days.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.