There are three classic blunders in life.
1. Never get involved in a land war in Asia.
2. Never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line.
3. Never open a Jim Harbaugh news conference with a joke.
Some silly reporter (OK, it was me) didn’t heed No. 3 this week when, amid whispers that the University of Texas would pursue Harbaugh to be its next coach, he opened the Harbaugh presser with this: “So, when are you heading off to Austin, Texas?”
Long pause. Reeaaally long pause.
Harbaugh: “Trying to be funny?”
“Yeah. Trying,” I said as every molecule of humor was vacuumed from the room.
Why open with a joke, you might ask? Because the notion of Harbaugh leaving for a college job, any college job, seems so absurd.
First, Harbaugh is an NFL guy.
He was an NFL quarterback for 14 years. His big brother, with whom he’s dueled all his life, coaches the Ravens. When the 49ers hired him in 2011, Harbaugh was asked why he didn’t stay at Stanford for one more season and try to win a national championship with quarterback Andrew Luck.
“I view it as a perfect opportunity, the perfect competitive platform with these pros, with the level playing field, the chance to be part of a team that goes after the highest award in all of sports, and that’s the Lombardi Trophy,” Harbaugh said. “ ... To compete at this level was overwhelming to me.”
See, the Lombardi Trophy is the prize. And Harbaugh has been chasing it for decades.
He came within a fingertip of having a shot at it on Jan. 14, 1996, as quarterback of the Colts, when his last-second heave into the end zone against Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game slipped from receiver Aaron Bailey’s grasp.
“I think he caught it,” a stunned Harbaugh said over and over as he slowly walked off the field, desperately looking for a replay on the stadium’s scoreboard.
He came close again in January 2012 when Kyle Williams’ fumbled punt in overtime of the NFC Championship Game set up the Giants’ game-winner.
Just 10 months ago, Harbaugh’s 49ers seemed to have a go-ahead, Super Bowl touchdown in their sights against brother John’s Ravens when quarterback Colin Kaepernick sprinted left and had a decent path to the end zone.
But Jim Harbaugh called timeout before the snap, and the ensuing plays from the Baltimore 5-yard line failed. Minutes later, John Harbaugh was holding the coveted prize.
Second, Jim Harbaugh is not motivated by money, which a big-time college program like Texas undoubtedly could provide by the wheelbarrow load. Remember that in 2011, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross took a private jet to the Bay Area, waved riches under Harbaugh’s nose and otherwise tried to entice him to Miami.
The 49ers’ tack involved an all-day meeting with general manager Trent Baalke in which they talked Xs and Os in the back room of a secluded house until it got dark. Owner Jed York was in the room, but he stayed out of the way. See the contrast?
Maybe one day Harbaugh will return to college football. If his hands are laden with Super Bowl rings and he tires of the NFL – or, perhaps more accurately, if the NFL tires of him – he might do what Bill Walsh did and spend his golden years on a college campus.
But my sense is that campus is in Ann Arbor, Mich. He identifies himself as a “Michigan Man,” he idolized Bo Schembechler, the former Michigan coach, and while he grew up in several towns across the Midwest and California, the Harbaughs spent their longest stint in Ann Arbor.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the back-to-college talk – ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Harbaugh turned down USC’s offer earlier this year – comes as Harbaugh reaches the end of the third year of his five-year contract with the 49ers, which is when the two sides start thinking about an extension.
Harbaugh makes $5 million a year, making him the third-highest-paid coach in the NFC West. St. Louis’ Jeff Fisher and Seattle’s Pete Carroll make more, and Harbaugh’s agent will try to turn him into the division champion in terms of salary.
Which might prompt Harbaugh to approach Carroll at some point and ask, “So, what’s your deal?”
(Always end with a joke.)