SANTA CLARA – Jim Harbaugh, head coach of the … Raiders?
Before we address that deliciously juicy possibility, know this: If Harbaugh and the 49ers part ways after the season, many more teams than Oakland and the Jets – who, it was reported over the weekend, would be first in line – will be jostling for an audience with him.
If Harbaugh wants to coach in the nation’s biggest media market and on the NFL’s biggest stage, the Jets, who could appeal to his blue-collar, underdog nature, and the Giants, who drip with football history, might be available.
If he wants splash, the Cowboys – if they miss the playoffs – might give him an opportunity. If he wants to return to his roots, the Bears could be a possibility. If he wants riches, perhaps the Dolphins and moneybags owner Stephen Ross will take a second crack at Harbaugh. If he wants a challenge, maybe Washington’s Dan Snyder will ask him to fix Robert Griffin III, the quarterback Harbaugh once tried to lure to Stanford.
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In the history of the NFL, no coach who is unwanted by his current team will be as sought after by other teams.
But don’t discount the Raiders.
You’re shaking your head and muttering: Why would Harbaugh, with all those fancy suitors, want to coach a team that hasn’t had a winning season since he was an entry-level assistant with them in 2002?
Because lousiness doesn’t scare Jim Harbaugh; he seems attracted to it.
Stanford was coming off a 1-11 season when Harbaugh took over in 2007. The academic standards were a handcuff to winning, he was told, and Pete Carroll and USC were the big, bad bullies of the Pacific-10 Conference, and always would be. Harbaugh toppled USC and in 2010 finished with a school-best 12-1 record.
The next year, he was hired by the 49ers, who hadn’t had a winning season since 2002, had all sorts of issues in their front office and hadn’t secured funding for a new stadium. The 49ers haven’t had a losing season since, and they’ve made wheelbarrow-loads of money with their new venue.
So a bad team playing in an outdated 1960s-style stadium wouldn’t be a deterrent for Harbaugh. A can’t-be-done scenario? The guy lives for them.
The No. 2 reason the Raiders make sense: Harbaugh has a fondness for late owner Al Davis. And during his two seasons as a Raiders assistant, he developed a relationship with Davis’ son, Mark, who now runs the team.
Harbaugh and Al Davis are kindred spirits. Harbaugh could slip on the “Just Win, Baby” motto just as easily as Al Davis wore it. The ultimate homage to Davis, who gave Harbaugh his first coaching job and who wanted to groom Harbaugh with the Raiders, would be to lift that once-proud franchise out of its malaise.
The No. 3 reason the Raiders make sense: The team’s headquarters are 30 miles from his house; the Harbaughs wouldn’t have to move.
Every coach knows his or her profession can be nomadic, and no one understands this better than Harbaugh, whose family moved every couple of years as his father, Jack, found new jobs. Jack estimates he moved 17 times in 43 years of coaching.
In that way, Jim also knows how rare it is to stay in one spot, which he was able to do working at Stanford and the 49ers. Maybe his wanderlust will take over and he’ll want a new setting. Or maybe domestic considerations – he and his wife, Sarah, had a son two years ago – will win the day.
The Raiders are well-versed when it comes to parting ways with talented coaches. After the 2001 season, they received two first-round picks, two second-round picks and cash from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a trade for coach Jon Gruden.
The 49ers and their fans shouldn’t expect anywhere near that kind of compensation – or, really, any compensation – for Harbaugh, who still has another year on his contract.
The difference? Davis valued Gruden, which is why Tampa Bay had to fork over a king’s ransom to pry him free.
The sense around the league is that the 49ers no longer want Harbaugh. To get something for him, they would have to convince everyone that they’re willing to keep him around for his lame-duck season.
And at this point, who would believe that?
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.