Jim Harbaugh is a hot commodity right now.
His engineering of the makeover at Stanford has been remarkable, and his reward has been recognition from NFL teams and college programs from coast to coast.
But as Harbaugh and his Cardinal prepare for the Orange Bowl, many are wondering where the next stop for the budding star of a head coach will be, if there is one at all.
Here are some of the popular guesses.
Palo Alto would be the most logical and likely place for Harbaugh, or so we thought just a few weeks ago. That was when Harbaugh was offered a three-year contract extension by Stanford athletics director Bob Bowlsby, who has since said that Harbaugh “has indicated he plans to accept it.”
As of now, Harbaugh has yet to sign that extension, and for as long as his signature is not jotted next to that big “X,” he is free to entertain any and all offers that come his way.
And they figure to be many.
The second Mike Singletary was axed after San Francisco’s loss to St. Louis last Sunday, Harbaugh’s name was scribbled in at the top of the list of his successors.
Jon Gruden, naturally, is the other participant in what is shaping up as a two-horse race, but Harbaugh may have the upper hand.
Niners team president/owner Jed York, just 29 years of age, seems prepared to promote vice president of player personnel Trent Baalke to general manager, at which time it is expected that Baalke will make a serious push to hire Harbaugh as the next head coach.
One caveat, however, according to the San Jose Mercury News’ Tim Kawakami: With no discernible tie to Baalke, an in-house hire who seems to lack in popularity, Harbaugh could perceive San Francisco’s job offer as a means to justify the hiring of Baalke.
You knew this one was coming.
Depending upon who you ask, Rich Rodriguez is either safe in Ann Arbor or nothing short of a 50-point victory over Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl will save his hide. Others seem to believe he is a coach simply waiting for the guillotine to fall at any second, at which point Rodriguez would be scooped up by Maryland.
Michigan athletics director Dave Brandon has reiterated he will wait until after the Wolverines’ bowl game on Jan. 1 to make a decision, which means Rodriguez will be fired on the next available business day.
Harbaugh is on the Michigan short list, and has been for some time.
But with a cozy setting readily available at Stanford, where he is gaining momentum toward a Pac-10 title, would the lure of Harbaugh’s alma mater outweigh the fact the Wolverines are still in rebuilding mode?
A native of Michigan, Harbaugh is probably not the most-liked man in the state of Ohio. But he would make for a good fit in Cleveland, where the fan base has been starved for success for a long time.
In conjunction with general manager Tom Heckert, who has an exemplary record of plucking elite talent from all points in the draft, Mike Holmgren leads a solid front office that may be of some attraction to Harbaugh.
Plus, you would think his Midwestern roots would be appealing to the Browns, who may choose to part ways with Eric Mangini after the season.
Considering the alternatives, Harbaugh would be a relatively cheap get for the Browns, particularly in the face of a potential work stoppage for next season.
Things are a mess in Charlotte right now, and the season can’t end soon enough. The Panthers have April’s No. 1 overall pick in the bag, but issues abound, so decisions will have to be made to determine the proper direction of the franchise.
One man who will not have a hand in those decisions is current head coach John Fox, who fully expects to be fired to begin the necessary facelift once Carolina’s nightmarish season finally comes to a close.
From there, the manner in which Carolina chooses to right the wrongs depends on who they choose to replace Fox.
Arizona assistant head coach Russ Grimm has been mentioned, as has San Diego defensive coordinator Ron Rivera. Both are solid candidates, but neither has any head-coaching experience.
Considering his options, the Carolina job would be a hard sell to Harbaugh.
The one upside is that the Panthers, should they draft a potential franchise quarterback first overall, could tug on Harbaugh’s heart strings and entice him with the prospect of developing such a player, especially if that player is Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck.
Other than Jason Garrett, who is stating a strong case to be made the full-time head coach in Dallas, Jerry Jones will fill his pool of candidates to replace Wade Phillips with big fish.
Does Harbaugh measure up against the likes of Gruden, Jeff Fisher, and Bill Cowher? In terms of NFL coaching experience, of which Harbaugh has just two years as the Oakland quarterbacks coach from 2002-03, absolutely not.
But Jones didn’t exactly hire a sure thing in Phillips, or for that matter, Chan Gailey, who succeeded Barry Switzer and was fired despite making the playoffs in each of his two seasons.
Think of this particular position as less of an immediate option for Harbaugh, because despite the Chargers’ disappointing season, general manager A.J. Smith has given no indication that Norv Turner’s seat is even warm.
But assume San Diego continues to fall short of expectations under Turner. If Harbaugh is willing to listen, from wherever that may be, would Smith, or whomever the GM is at that point, not at least contemplate bringing Harbaugh back to the city where he played two years professionally and even coached collegiately at the University of San Diego?
Like San Diego, Notre Dame is unlikely to have a vacancy at head coach in the foreseeable future.
Brian Kelly is not yet finished with his inaugural season in South Bend, and despite some tumultuous times that have included the death of a student videographer and sexual assault allegations that ultimately led to the death of a female student, 2010 figures to be the first link in a long leash for Kelly.
That said, tolerance for failure isn’t the Notre Dame way, so if Kelly’s struggles become consistent, why would the Irish brass not reach out to someone of Harbaugh’s Irish-Catholic pedigree, which was no doubt a factor when athletics director Jack Swarbrick arranged a meeting between he, Harbaugh, and Kelly last December to discuss the then-vacant head-coaching position?