Commentary

Expect the Stanford duo to bolt

Originally Published: January 3, 2011
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

MIAMI -- Jim Harbaugh glanced nervously at the postgame gathering of reporters, nudged the Orange Bowl logo'd microphone closer and then cleared his throat. He had just been asked if he'd coached his last game for Stanford.

"Actually, I'd like to officially end all speculation regarding my status at Stanford," he said. "I'm staying."

A murmur of surprise swept the room. Near the door, where Stanford officials and several prominent alums stood, you could hear applause.

But Harbaugh wasn't done.

"I'm staying and I've got company," he said, beaming. "Andrew Luck is returning for his senior year!"

More applause. Reporters rushed toward Harbaugh and --

Uh, end dream sequence.

[+] EnlargeJim Harbaugh
Douglas Jones/US PresswireJim Harbaugh has likely walked the Stanford sideline for the last time.

Harbaugh was asked if Monday night's 40-12 win against Virginia Tech marked the end of his Stanford coaching career. It didn't go well.

"Oh, please, please -- give me a break," he said. "Have some respect for the game. It's about the performance tonight of these players. And I love 'em. Talk about them."

Harbaugh is history. He'll be standing in front of another microphone soon enough, pledging his allegiance to the San Francisco 49ers, the Denver Broncos or, who knows, maybe even the Miami Dolphins. After all, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross was on the field before the game, chatting it up with another interested observer, John Elway.

Elway is a Stanford grad and proudly wore his Cardinal-colored golf shirt on the sidelines. A Stanford ball cap was stuffed in his back pocket. But he's also the Broncos' new executive vice president, so an Orange Bowl scouting/recruiting fly-by comes in handy.

And it was no accident that sportswriters from Charlotte and Detroit were in the Sun Life Stadium press box. But they weren't here to watch Virginia Tech. They were here on the Luck-Harbaugh Watch.

The Carolina Panthers have the No. 1 pick of the 2011 NFL draft. Detroit, less than an hour from the Michigan campus, is monitoring the No. 1 Dead Coach Walking, Rich Rodriguez.

Meanwhile, in the hallway before the game, Bay Area writers did dueling radio show hits on all the career possibilities involving the Stanford coach and quarterback. It was as though the game -- a good one for nearly three quarters, by the way -- was an afterthought.

Anyway, that's what happens when you're the IT coach. You become the starting point for every coaching change conversation. You get swept up in your IT-ness. You leverage IT into an NFL gig.

Harbaugh is headed back to the pros unless his alma mater, Michigan, can money whip/guilt him into submission. That's possible, I suppose. Not only is Ross the Dolphins' owner, but he's a Michigan man. The U of M school of business is named after him, thanks to his $100 million donation.

But the NFL, lockout or no lockout, can be intoxicating stuff. Harbaugh supposedly has an offer for $3 million per year (and substantial perks) from Stanford. Michigan would and could top that, of course. And figure on Harbaugh costing an NFL team at least $5 million per year. Former USC coach Pete Carroll is getting about $6.5 million for five years. Ross could afford that.

So I asked Harbaugh what he would say to the Stanford faithful anxiously awaiting his decision.

It will definitely be an impact. I don't know how much.

-- Andrew Luck on his draft decision if Jim Harbaugh leaves

"I don't want to be rude, but in all due respect, I'd rather enjoy the moment and these guys and this team and what we've accomplished," he said. "Because it's never been done this way exactly in the history of Stanford football and we're really excited about it."

The Cardinal finished 12-1. Its only loss was to Oregon. Check that -- if Harbaugh and Luck leave, that's three losses.

If Harbaugh bolts, then Luck probably bolts with him. He'll get McShay'd and Kiper'd to death between now and the April NFL draft -- if there is a draft.

"It will definitely be an impact," Luck said of Harbaugh's possible departure. "I don't know how much."

But this much is clear, especially after the Orange Bowl MVP turned Virginia Tech's defense into Gerber's mush Monday night: Luck will be the No. 1 pick if he comes out. He's not going to stiff arm the Carolina Panthers' $50 million-plus guaranteed bonus, right?

"The total package," said Elway, who watched Luck complete 18 of 23 passes for 287 yards and four touchdowns.

Harbaugh and Stanford have been going steady since 2007, when athletic director Bob Bowlsby plucked him from gorgeous little University of San Diego, an FCS program. They survived a 4-8 first season together. Monday evening, Bowlsby watched as Harbaugh shared a postgame stage with the likes of Condoleezza Rice and Jim Plunkett. As he waited for the presentation ceremony to begin, Harbaugh tossed oranges from Luck's MVP trophy to nearby Stanford players.

"I love you guys," Harbaugh said to his team.

It was a pure, lovely football moment. But now it's time for business.

Supply and demand is a wonderful thing, which is why Harbaugh gets first pick in the buffet line of available job openings. He can have a plate of Tim Tebow, with a side order of Broncos chaos. He can coach the dysfunctional Niners. He can come work for Ross in Miami. He can return to Ann Arbor. He can stay in his comfort zone at Stanford and live happily ever after eating burgers at the Dutch Goose, ordering frozen yogurt at Tresidder or kicking back at Zot's on a Friday afternoon. I'll take a flyer on the Dolphins.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
Jonathan Brownfield/US PresswireWould Andrew Luck pass up all the guaranteed money for another year on The Farm?

If he leaves for the NFL, he'll get the control he craves and those extra zeroes on his paycheck. But will he ever get what he already has at Stanford?

Harbaugh has a history of being a bit unconventional. Wouldn't it be something if he stayed put, if he took the coaching career less traveled? It's worked for Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech, Joe Paterno at Penn State and Mike Krzyzewski at Duke.

I'm not saying Harbaugh isn't NFL worthy; he is. I'm just saying it'd be fun to see him stay on The Farm. College football needs him more than the NFL does.

But how do you tell someone to ignore their ambitions? You don't. Harbaugh has NFL written all over his headphones, but he fits in college football.

Luck also looks good in a Stanford uni. He could do a Sam Bradford or a Tebow and return for another season. He could live his age and be Joe College. I would. Then again, nobody is offering me $50 million.

But Tebow was never going to be the No. 1 pick in the draft. And just ask Bradford if he saw his NFL life pass in front of him after injuring his shoulder as a senior. He recovered, but what if he hadn't?

"I think there are a lot of worse decisions you might have to make in life," Luck said. "I don't mean to be rude, but I'd rather not address that subject anymore."

Fair enough. But the chances of Harbaugh staying at Stanford are the same as Joe Pa dating Lady Gaga. The chances of Luck turning down that No. 1 pick -- and the No. 1 guaranteed bonus money that comes with it -- are the same as Cecil Newton conducting an ethics seminar.

Stranger things have happened. But Harbaugh and Luck staying put won't be one of them.

But at least Stanford will always have that trophy.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter