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49ers Coaching Situation: The Jim Harbaugh Conundrum

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Since the 49ers aren't playing today, I thought I'd pull up a fairly saucy subject for some morning discussion as the day's games get under way. Generally I'd prefer to save front page posts about a new head coach for when the 49ers actually have a vacancy in the position. However, some discussion I had with friends this weekend has me bringing up Jim Harbaugh and the discussion that has surrounded him here as a potential head coaching option.

If the 49ers fire Mike Singletary and Jim Harbaugh is involved in the interview process we'll have plenty more about him. In the meantime, I wanted to address a couple issues that I have been pondering recently. They are things I've thought about in the past few days and I want to post them now before I forget two months from now:

The Michigan thing
While I was watching college football yesterday, I saw Michigan get absolutely crushed by Ohio State 37-7. This was Michigan's seventh straight loss to the Buckeyes and dropped coach Wolverines' coach Rich Rodriguez to 15-21 in his three seasons with Michigan. Michigan has improved its win total each year so it's possible the school will give him another year. That hasn't stopped Wolverines fans from calling for RichRod's head on a fairly regular basis.

I bring all this up because of the fact that Jim Harbaugh played QB at Michigan. If Harbaugh has serious NFL aspirations then this would likely not be a huge issue. However, Harbaugh's old school could be quite a serious draw for him. The most pertinent reason is that he played there. The idea of going back and returning his beloved Wolverines to prominence has to be somewhere in the back of his head, at least a little bit.

And while my friends who went to Michigan aren't boosters and aren't the be-all end-all when it comes to the voice of the Wolverines, Facebook status messages like this can't be confined to just my friends:

Countdown to Jim Harbaugh saving the Michigan football program begins today.

Over at Maize and Brew (our Michigan blog) there is one Harbaugh FanPost and one Harbaugh FanShot. I'd imagine those numbers will increase this offseason.

The other reason is that if he does want to stay in college football, recruiting has got to be easier as head coach of Michigan than as head coach of Stanford. He's obviously brought in some serious talent at Stanford and in four seasons he's turned them into a potential BCS bowl team. However, at Michigan it would seem easier to bring in talent. Michigan is an excellent academic institution, but it's my understanding that Stanford has tougher standards for its athletes. I could be wrong on that, but that's what I've heard.

The "college coach" thing
The other issue I wanted to briefly address is the stigma attached to college head coaches that try and go pro. I'm as much a part of this as any. Whenever folks have brought up Jim Harbaugh I'm quick to point out the failures of many college head coaches. I counter the Bill Walsh argument by pointing out that Walsh spent numerous years in the NFL as an assistant with the Raiders, Bengals and Chargers. He developed his West Coast offense at those stops before heading to Stanford.

Jim Harbaugh does have some limited NFL experience as an assistant with the Raiders in 2002 and 2003. It's not nearly as much as Walsh and is a bit limited to be used to counter the lack of NFL coaching experience argument, at least in my opinion. However, what I have found myself pondering recently is his playing career. Harbaugh spent 14 seasons in the NFL as a quarterback. He was never a superstar but he certainly was a decent QB in the league, with his best year coming 1995 when he earned a Pro Bowl nod. That was the year he really embodied the Captain Comeback nickname as he almost took his Colts to the Super Bowl on what would have been a miracle end zone catch.

I simply wonder to what level playing experience can make up for NFL assistant coaching experience? Obviously there are serious distinctions between coaching and playing, but given the mental rigors of the quarterback position in the NFL, could it potentially make up for his lack of NFL coaching experience? My only real misgiving about Harbaugh at this point (without further research) is the amazing failure rate of successful college coaches when they move to the NFL. If this could help get past that experience issue, I might be a little more intrigued by Harbaugh as a candidate if the 49ers decide to get a new coach this offseason.