It’s not hyperbole to consider the San Francisco 49ers’ Jim Harbaugh one of the most successful head coaches in pro football history.
If the 49ers beat the Arizona Cardinals in the regular-season finale Sunday, Harbaugh’s NFL career win-loss percentage — .698— will put him in sole possession No. 5 all time, behind Guy Chamberlin, John Madden, Vince Lombardi and George Allen.
For reasons best described as the professional sports equivalent of a divorce steeped in irreconcilable differences, Harbaugh is prepared to leave the 49ers, and the 49ers are prepared to let him. The shrugs-all-around compromise will allow the former University of San Diego and Stanford coach to go back to what may or may not be his true love — college football.
Harbaugh likely will accept the job of resurrecting the once elite program at the University of Michigan, where he was a star quarterback for the late Bo Schembechler — another all-time great coach not known for his affable disposition.
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Should Harbaugh return to the Wolverines, he’ll be the latest in a long line of coaches to have decided the headaches associated with college football (demanding boosters, meddlesome administrators, and a few bad apples forever on the brink of suspension) are preferable to the hassles they face in the NFL (control-freak bosses, insufferable agents, and a few really bad apples forever on the brink of suspension — or, ahem, in the case of the 49ers — prison).
Harbaugh’s apparent determination to seek his fortune at the sport’s entry level is not unusual. The list of college coaches whose portfolios include experience as NFL head coaches reads like a Who’s Who of the industry: Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier, Butch Davis, Mike Riley, Bobby Petrino, Jim L. Mora.
What distinguishes Harbaugh from the others is that he’s the only one to have excelled in the NFL.
Saban was canned by the Miami Dolphins after two seasons, in 2006, when his team finished 6-10. Petrino, who had signed a five-year contract with the Atlanta Falcons worth $24 million, survived only 13 games before ditching out the back door.
Between stints at Duke and Florida, Spurrier had 14 consecutive winning seasons. Then he hooked up with the Washington Redskins, lost 20 games in two seasons, and was on to South Carolina.
Davis (24-35 with the Cleveland Browns) and Riley (14-34 with the San Diego Chargers) were similarly over-matched in the NFL. Mora fared better with the Falcons, taking them to the NFC Championship Game in his first year. But he fell out of favor with ownership, got fired, and the only memorable thing about his 5-11 season with the Seattle Seahawks was the awkward timing of his dismissal.
The closest comparison to Harbaugh might be Chuck Fairbanks, who by 1977, his fourth season, had turned the New England Patriots into a playoff team. The Patriots were 11-4 and bound for a playoff return in 1978 when management learned Fairbanks had secured a secret deal to coach at Colorado.
Fairbanks clearly had the chops to win in the NFL, but he’d grown so weary of the Patriots’ front office executives — the feeling was mutual, by the way — that he entered into negotiations about a college coaching job while his pro team was competing for a division title.
As for Harbaugh’s return to college coaching, his motivation seems simple: A contract offer reported to be as lucrative as $48 million over six years.
Furthermore, the contract is from the University of Michigan, home of a latent powerhouse program — 42 conference championships, but none since 2004 — that gives fans the right to wince at the 5-7 record the 2014 Wolverines produced under the fired Brady Hoke.
Harbaugh is nothing if not competitive. The challenge of reviving championship-caliber football at his old school surely trumps anything he’ll find in the NFL.
I suspect there’s still another factor in the mix, and it regards the oversight of player personnel. An NFL coach typically attends the pre-draft combine, and if he’s got a crazy notion about a so-so prospect who doesn’t impress his front-office colleagues, the coach’s hunch might hold some sway.
A college coach is responsible for the acquisition of every player, be they Parade All-America five-stars or modestly recruited walk-ons. Washington Huskies coach Chris Petersen refers to the process as finding an OKG: “Our Kind of Guy.” It’s a folksy term Petersen essentially has trademarked, but his philosophy is shared by all college coaches, at all levels.
Harbaugh can assemble a Michigan roster representing his kind of guys. Along with hitting a potential $48 million contract jackpot and the chance to return the Wolverines to relevance, the guarantee of roster-construction autonomy is a hidden carrot.
It helps explain why Jim Harbaugh stands to become the first coach in memory to parlay his obvious success on Sundays into a job that will focus on Saturdays.
After a year that found NFL storylines dominated by the miscreant behavior of players off the field, something tells me he won’t be the last.