Commentary

Jim Harbaugh should stay at Stanford

Updated: December 2, 2010, 9:27 PM ET
By Roy S. Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

Coach!

Jim Harbaugh!

Got a sec?

Join me for a quick cup of coffee. I know you've got a few days before you learn whom your Stanford Cardinal squad will face and in which bowl, so let's take a stroll across campus and sit outside the café at Tresidder.

[+] EnlargeHarbaugh
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesNote to Jim Harbaugh: It doesn't get colder than this in Palo Alto.

Yeah, it's a bit chilly, but partly cloudy with a temperature in the high-50s isn't so bad for this time of year. Did you hear that it's snowing all week in Ann Arbor, with temps in the 20s?

Glad you got a chuckle out of that. Hey, even the Chilean miners know that most of the state of Michigan is salivating to lure you back to your alma mater. Those were good times for you, I know, quarterbacking the '85 Wolverines to a 10-1-1 record and a No. 2 ranking after beating Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl.

Heading back there for the challenge of reviving the maize and blue has to be enticing.

The NFL fellows up the road have been sniffing around, too. I hear the 49ers might not want to let you slip out of the Bay Area before tempting you with a gig -- that would be big stuff at family gatherings, allowing you to go jaw-to-jaw with big brother John, coach of the Baltimore Ravens.

You're breathing heady air right now, Coach. But give me a sec. Order another cappuccino. Decaf.

Clearly, you've done some amazing things here. You've forever debunked the myths that smart kids can't compete with the best in college football, that a national power could never be built at a school that actually has admission standards. You've taken a team that had one win the season before you arrived to near perfection (11-1) in four years. Heck, if not for an outright meltdown, butt-whipping second half at Oregon, the Cardinal just might be booking reservations for the BCS national title game.

So it can be done.

Why not do it here?

Sure, there are viable reasons to leave. But before you do anything hasty, a few of my Stanford alumni buddies got together -- I'll call them N, V and L -- and brainstormed about your options. L, an attorney, wasn't initially optimistic: "If he wants to build a dominant program at a school that really wants a dominant program and that loves football, I don't know how we retain him. It's a great job in many ways, but not in the ways that count for most football coaches: ability to recruit four- and five-star athletes, a rabid and loyal fan base and an ability to dominate the local press."

Jeez, L, not a great way to start the conversation. But he eventually came around to our not-so-surprising consensus: Your best option is staying right here on The Farm.

Here's why.

First, why you should avoid the NFL:

• Think the Stanford admissions team is tough? On draft day, 49ers president Jed York (or almost any other owner) could ding your picks like ex-"Idol" hammer Simon Cowell -- and with less justification.

• Job security. The average tenure of an NFL head coach is less than three years. Way less.

• The players. You're now molding men; in the NFL, you get "men" who think they're too good to carry bags.

• The organizations/owners: Just like elsewhere in sports, in the NFL, there are jobs and there are good jobs. "Ask your good buddy Pete Carroll in Seattle how he likes the nonfinancial aspects of his job," said N, who works in finance.

As for why you shouldn't accept another college gig:

• Expectations. The Cardinal are ranked No. 4 in the BCS standings, and there's a top-20 recruiting class waiting outside the locker room. Wherever you go will expect better. Win a couple of Rose Bowls, and Stanford just might name the field after you. A national title? A student will name his Fortune 500 company after you. "Life as a successful college coach on Stanford's campus can be very sweet," offered V, who also works in finance.

• See NFL point No. 2 above, or talk to Randy Shannon.

• The foundation is laid. I never thought I would type these words: Face it, Stanford is closer to winning the national title than Michigan. "You want to trade down," N said haughtily. "Why start over when you've already built a winner in the toughest collegiate environment in which to do so?"

• The NCAA. "You'll never been tempted to violate NCAA rules," N said, "because [Stanford president John Hennessy] and [athletic director Bob] Bowlsby simply wouldn't allow it."

OK, now let's talk about the elephants in the room: money and "the stage."

[+] EnlargeStanford Cardinal fans
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesCardinal fans may still be learning how to handle a successful football team, but these students have a good start.

Yes, you're underpaid, making just $1.25 million while guys like USC's Lame, I mean, Lane Kiffin bank $4 million annually. Conventional thinking is that Stanford can't pay as much as Michigan or an NFL franchise. Uh, have you looked around campus lately? All those new buildings weren't built for free. Even in the wake of the recession, Stanford alumni can make magic when they want to. Said L: "There is enough money in the Bay Area and the Stanford alum network to keep him well-compensated."

The school has the third-largest endowment in the nation and is currently in the midst of a $4.5 billion fundraising campaign. If that's the deal-make-or-breaker, somebody will figure it out.

Then there's "the stage." The Big House. I wouldn't blame you for waking up at night dreaming of running out of the tunnel to a frenzied crowd exceeding 100,000 -- for your first practice. In September, 113,090 people gathered at Michigan Stadium to see the Wolverines stomp UConn, setting the modern-era attendance record.

No amount of brainstorming by my crew could conquer this one. I live in New York, so I can't speak for this season's weak, weak, weak showing by my alumni brethren in the Bay Area who filled our squeaky-clean, 2-year-old, $100 million, new-car-smellin' stadium only once this season.

Average attendance is said to be about 40,300, but at least 5,000 of those "fans" came dressed as stadium seats, from the looks of things on my television screen every weekend. Shame. "We're not used to having high expectations, let alone a winning program," N offered as a stab at an explanation. "Give us a little time."

"We'll contact the dean of student affairs and have him drum it into every freshman's head that Saturdays in the fall are football days," N yelled. "Require all RAs to attend every game and offer a prize to the dorm that boasts the highest attendance per game and over the course of the year. Create a football culture from the top down!"

Jim, you didn't lose a game there at all this season, and you have only one home loss in the past two years, so it can't be all bad.

In our minds (and hopefully in yours as well), that small flaw is outweighed by the myriad positives of remaining a Cardinal:

• You grew up right here in Palo Alto. It's home. You love the area, and so does your family. (Did I mention it's snowing in Ann Arbor?!)

• We've got a national fan base. The Cardinal might not have been able to fill Stanford Stadium, but your success stirred alumni around the nation. I went to more watch parties this season than I did in the previous 10 combined. Even better, I didn't hear a peep out of my usually woof-woofing Notre Dame friends all fall. Thank you!

• You're well-stocked: As a recruiter, you're golden in California, Texas and the Midwest. Try getting California kids to Michigan. This team was deep, and you have recruits waiting. As an added bonus, almost all of your Cardinal recruits will graduate on time -- and those who don't probably won't because they've got three majors! "And they won't get arrested," N added, getting a tad snippy.

• The challenge: Is there a bigger one that doing something that has never been done before? In 1926, Stanford tied Alabama 7-7 in the Rose Bowl and shared the "national title" with the Tide. (That Cardinal team was coached by a fellow named Glenn "Pop" Warner.) But no Stanford team has ever won an outright national title. Michigan has won 11. Do that here, and your name will be etched alongside those of Warner and Bill Walsh as the most celebrated coaches in the history of the school.

That brings us to perhaps our most valuable card: legacy.

It's rare these days that a college coach has a chance to become an institution within the institution. At Stanford, Jim, you have a chance to "establish a Joe Paterno-type legacy," said V (a former Cardinal football player, by the way). Or become the Mike Krzyzewski of college football.

And that can only happen if you're sipping cappuccino with me again right here next year. And then, you'll buy!

Roy S. Johnson, a veteran sports journalist and media consultant, is the editor-in-chief of Men's Fitness. His blog is Ballers, Gamers and Scoundrels. He's a 1978 Stanford graduate.

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Roy S. Johnson

Contributing writer, ESPN.com