The speculation began almost as soon as the NFL season started, because that’s how long it took for the first reports to surface. Jim Harbaugh, it seemed, was wearing out his welcome in San Francisco. By many accounts, there is no way he’ll return.
Maybe he’ll be available via a trade. Maybe he’ll end up getting fired. Or maybe there’ll be some mutual agreement to rip up his contract and part ways. But there’s no doubt that if he’s somewhat available he’ll have no shortage of suitors. He’ll be the biggest name on the market, and a target of plenty of NFL and college teams.
And why not? All he’s done the last few years is turn Stanford University into a football power. Then he barreled into the NFL and turned the 49ers into a contender, taking them to three NFC championship games and one Super Bowl in his three years. There may not be a better current coach in football. There certainly isn’t a bigger name.
So here’s a look at where he might end up:
The Oakland Raiders
They are a disaster, once again, and it sounds like they’re going to clean house after the season (yes, once again). They have a shortage of talent, but they do have a franchise quarterback in Derek Carr. That’s a good building block, but they don’t have much else. So why would Harbaugh want to wade into that swamp? Well, for one, it’s home. He grew up in Northern California. He’s been coaching in Northern California since Stanford hired him in 2007. He’s been coaching in California since he became a Raiders quarterbacks coach in 2003. And according to reports, his wife doesn’t want to leave Northern California. He could make this switch and not even have to sell his home.
One thing Harbaugh seems to know is how to build an offense. Remember, he took the 49ers to an NFC championship game with flawed quarterback Alex Smith and some questionable weapons. Just imagine what he could do with flawed – but dangerous – quarterback Jay Cutler and arguably one of the most talented, underachieving offensive teams in the league. The Bears are loaded with receivers Ashlon Jeffrey and Brandon Marshall, running back Matt Forte and tight end Martellus Bennett. Yet they’ve been an inconsistent mess under Marc Trestman. Harbaugh played quarterback for the Bears from 1987-'93, so this is a bit of a homecoming, too. And he could earn a ton of money in a very major market as well.
New York Jets
They are one of the biggest disasters in football, one of the most dysfunctional franchises and seemingly headed for a major housecleaning. Also, many believe that Jets owner Woody Johnson will want to distance himself from his unknown hire of soon-to-be-former GM John Idzik by hiring a big name. Harbaugh, who is something of a grouch and not exactly charming, may not want a part of the New York media. He also can’t be excited about a team quarterbacked by Geno Smith. But what he could get in New York, where he might not get in many other places, is total control.
University of Michigan
This is the spot many think Harbaugh will land for a variety of reasons – not the least of which is he’s a former Wolverine. Now that Brady Hoke is out and Michigan is in desperate need of rebuilding to become a Big 10 (and national) power again, the bet is that UM’s boosters will spare no expense in luring Harbaugh back. He would have total control there, along with an easier-to-mold audience (translation: No millionaire athlete who may wilt under his dictatorial rule). And it shouldn’t be hard to take a program with Michigan’s prestige and restore it’s glory. The only question would be whether or not he wants to be a part of the recruiting grind again.
San Francisco 49ers
Yes, the 49ers. Maybe the reports are right, that there’s no way he’s coming back. But there have been bad sports marriages before that somehow got salvaged because both sides realized how good they had it. Harbaugh turned the 49ers into a power and has had them on the brink of a Super Bowl for three straight years – and not quite out of it this season either. Harbaugh has an organization willing to spend money and a place that many NFL players want to go play. Maybe whatever is causing the friction there can be figured out. Or maybe Harbaugh will emerge as the winner of the power play and get an enormous raise. Whatever it is, don’t be stunned if he returned even though no one thinks it’s possible. Why would either side want to throw something this good away?
—By Ralph Vacchiano