Commentary

The hazards with Jim Harbaugh's heat

The lesson: Others have been where he is now, and it hasn't worked out so well

Originally Published: January 3, 2011
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

It is just so great to be Jim Harbaugh right now. So, so great. Harbaugh isn't yet a Bobby Petrino, and surely he never will be, right? He isn't a Steve Spurrier or Nick Saban or Dennis Erickson or Butch Davis.

He isn't even a Rich Rodriguez, who, let's face it, was the Jim Harbaugh of his day just a couple of years ago.

What Harbaugh is, this minute, is the hot commodity. And there isn't much more fun in the world for a coach -- even a hard-line, grim-faced, business-first guy like Jim "Don't Distract Me" Harbaugh -- than to be the person whom everybody in the world has decided is the one who holds the secret to all this football stuff.

[+] EnlargeJim Harbaugh
AP Photo/Alan DiazTuesday morning, after the Orange Bowl, Jim Harbaugh's life might be dramatically different.

And so when Harbaugh awoke Monday, hours before his Stanford football team took its 11-1 season into the Orange Bowl to face Virginia Tech, he was a winner in the moment. It is the moment before expectation, the moment before magnified pressure. It is the moment when Harbaugh has actually gone beyond what even optimistic alums might have forecast for his program in those first few heady seasons.

It is a moment in time in which so many coaches would love to remain suspended. Because nothing, really, has gone wrong.

It's the moment before the big decision gets made.

You can almost hear the ghosts of failed college-turned-NFL coaches calling out to Harbaugh, telling him to take his time and think about it before he leaves a sweet job. He won't get much time. For starters, the San Francisco 49ers already have made it abundantly clear that wooing Harbaugh, who after all is literally just down the road near Palo Alto, is the top priority in their search for a new head coach.

The Denver Broncos just hired Stanford grad John Elway to run their football operations; Elway promptly took off for Florida to watch the Orange Bowl in which Harbaugh will coach. (Previously scheduled, of course.) The Carolina Panthers are pondering whether holding the No. 1 pick in next summer's NFL draft, which could be used on Stanford QB Andrew Luck, might be enough to entice Harbaugh there. Writers who cover the Cowboys are suggesting that Jerry Jones at least make a call to Harbaugh before he decides on Jason Garrett.

Ka-ching, ka-ching and, if Jones suddenly develops a yen after talking to Harbaugh, ka-chinga. There is a very good reason why Harbaugh hasn't yet even really responded to Stanford's reported $3 million per year offer to stay.

[+] EnlargeJim Harbaugh & Andrew Luck
AP Photo/Paul SakumaSome of the speculation has Harbaugh and Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck joining the Carolina Panthers in a package deal.

It's a big, fat Harbaugh Derby. The winner gets the college coach who can't miss. And don't you wonder whether any aspect of this chase rings familiar to Spurrier (12-20 in the NFL) or Saban (15-17) or Petrino (3-10) or Davis (24-34) or, say, Mike Riley (14-34)?

None of the situations compares exactly with Harbaugh's, of course. In several of those instances, the coaches in question had longer NFL assistantships in their backgrounds, though they were known primarily for winning at the college level. (Harbaugh spent two seasons on the Oakland Raiders' staff.) Dennis Erickson did a couple of full NFL head-coaching stints in between his various NCAA jobs; his record at the pro level was 40-56.

But what all these coaches shared was heat. Each man had it at some point or other, and some, like Spurrier and Saban, never really lost it. Every one of them knows what it's like to have the football world blinded by your most recent success -- fooled, that is, into thinking you've got the answers regardless of whether you ever suggest that you actually do.

Harbaugh has spent four years at Stanford and posted winning records in two of them. It's no diminishment of the man's accomplishment, because the team was 1-11 the year before he arrived. Still, it's a 28-21 cumulative record as the Cardinal's head man. Solid; terribly promising; but not yet any sort of global achievement.

[+] EnlargeRich Rodriguez
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesA few years ago, Rich Rodriguez was right where Harbaugh is now. Will Harbaugh end up in Ann Arbor, where Rodriguez is at the moment?

When he lit out for the University of Michigan before the 2008 season, Rich Rodriguez was all that and then some. His seven years at West Virginia had just produced a 60-26 record, six straight bowl appearances and only five defeats over his final three seasons combined. Rodriguez absolutely could not miss. Michigan, looking for Lloyd Carr's replacement, snapped him up in a hurry.

Three seasons later, every indication is that Michigan now is preparing to overthrow Rodriguez -- in order to pursue Jim Harbaugh. It makes some sense; Harbaugh had a wonderful college career as the Wolverines' quarterback, back in the day when a guy like Bo Schembechler would coach a program for 20 years. Michigan is looking for that guy, a long-term solution. Michigan is looking for the guy with heat.

Of course, the Wolverines thought they'd found that person three years ago. You know what it was back then? It was a great time to be Rich Rodriguez, to be the coach who had supposedly figured it all out. Nothing, really, had gone wrong.

Now it is Harbaugh's turn, and you can only hope for the coach that he has the presence of mind to enjoy it, to soak it up. Because when this is all said and done, Harbaugh gets to make only one choice this offseason; and no matter what it is, his success no longer will strike anyone as a surprise. It will be, instead, expected.

That is heat of a different sort.

Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His work, "Six Good Innings," was named one of the Top 10 Sports Books of 2009 by Booklist. His next book, "The Voodoo Wave," will be released in 2011 by W.W. Norton. Reach him at mark@markkreidler.com.

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