San Francisco 49ers Courtship of Jim Harbaugh: How Wise Is Their Approach?
In the fast-changing world of the NFL, when you see something you want, you need to snag it up quickly. The San Francisco 49ers have certainly taken that to heart.
The team brass, like much of the local and extended fan base, have fallen head over heels for Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh, and nearly everyone seems convinced he is THE choice to replace Mike Singletary at head coach. Just one day after Harbaugh returned from coaching what nearly everyone assumes was his last game with Stanford, the 49ers reportedly met with him to discuss his potential for joining the team.
Acting Fast, But Is It Smart?
This meeting came just hours after former Vice President of Player Personnel Trent Baalke had been officially named the new general manager and was accompanied by a variety of reports publicly quoting the 49ers as saying that Harbaugh is the overwhelming favorite for the head coach position.
Their method is certainly efficient, and gives them the best chance to land the coach they clearly really want, but is this the best approach? Are the 49ers guilty of falling too hard for the hottest name on the market? Should they be so public about their intentions? Are they closing themselves off to other (perhaps better) options?
An Impressive Résumé
Harbaugh is easily the hottest coaching prospect on the NFL radar, and not without good reason. His turn-around of a once fledgling Stanford football program to a national power and Orange Bowl champion in just four seasons is quite impressive and his long and fairly successful NFL career speaks to his first-hand knowledge of the game.
Harbaugh's success at Stanford demonstrates an ability to integrate all managerial aspects of a major program and build a cohesive team with a defined and effective identity, a skill Mike Singletary seemed to lack. Combine that with the obvious and inevitable comparisons to Bill Walsh (due to his Stanford success and lack of NFL track record), and it is no wonder why he is such a popular choice.
Simply The Best?
Harbaugh would certainly seem to be an improvement over Mike Singletary, and the 49ers could certainly do worse, as I have pointed out previously, but could they do better?
Coaching options with varying NFL pedigrees remain potentially available, including Brian Billick, Jim Mora, Ray Rhodes, Bill Cowher, and even Mike Holmgren and Jon Gruden. Not all of these coaches would necessarily be interested, not all would necessarily be better as of today, and of course Harbaugh could eventually turn out to be better than any of them, but the point is—by all available accounts—the 49ers have not even considered any of these other men.
The Job Should Sell Itself
Even if Harbaugh is the slam dunk he is being made out to be, should the 49ers really approach the situation like they have? Is it wise to publicly profess your unbridled adoration of your number one choice?
It may give the 49ers a better chance to woo Harbaugh away from other open choices he has, such as returning to his alma mater at the University of Michigan, the seemingly impossible return to Stanford, or taking the head coaching job with the Miami Dolphins or Denver Broncos—the Broncos now under the leadership of Stanford alumnus John Elway. But is that really needed?
The 49ers already present a tempting option for any coaching prospect: as they have a wealth of raw talent and seem to be merely a few key players and a solid coach and system away from greatness. Furthermore, for Harbaugh in particular, taking the 49ers job would allow him to stay in the Bay Area, where he has resided and become a local celebrity of sorts for four years—not to mention where he spent time playing high school football.
A Lesson Not Learned From The Darrelle Revis Saga
Praising and exalting Harbaugh as they have puts the 49ers at a disadvantage, for a variety of reasons.
There is obviously no chance of keeping Harbaugh a secret from the rest of the NFL, but such public courtship from the 49ers may increase interest from other teams in stealing the prospect away. Even if they cannot, they may be able to drive the price up for the 49ers.
Furthermore, it gives Harbaugh tremendous leverage in contract negotiations, allowing him to arrange the intricacies of his potential coaching arrangement on his terms, rather than the team's. He could also drive the price up himself by holding the specter of walking away over Jed York and Trent Baalke's heads.
Finally, in the event the sides cannot reach an agreement, it could make any potential Plan B coaching option feel like a mere consolation prize, and might create a hostile environment of unrealistic or even impossible expectations. Head coach in the NFL is a pretty good gig if you can get it, so the 49ers would likely still have people lining up to fill the void left by Harbaugh, but having to face the constant speculation of "Jim could have done better" might wear anyone down.
Now You Know How Alex Felt
This could effectively create an Alex Smith situation for the next head coach, with Jim Harbaugh playing the role of Aaron Rodgers as the one who got away. Of course, if Harbaugh goes elsewhere and flops, and whomever the 49ers hire has immediate success, that point is moot.
However, if Harbaugh succeeds like everyone expects him to, any mistake by any other 49ers coach would be an instant source of tremendous criticism. A coach could quickly get disheartened, lose motivation, or be run out of town, realizing he could never live up to people's conception of what Harbaugh COULD have been.
Balance Is the Key to Life
Just as was the case with the "search" for a new GM, the 49ers seem to be working from an artificially truncated list of candidates as they seek to replace Mike Singletary. Jed York is quickly eating through whatever good will he may once have had as a new team president and owner representative, and his haste to make marquee moves may come back to haunt him.
In the NFL, as in life, he who hesitates is lost, but it is equally true that good things come to those who wait and those who truly take the time to weigh all the options in critical situations.
The 49ers sit in strong posture to attract a variety of potential head coaches—offering the chance to work with emerging and established stars like Frank Gore, Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree and Taylor Mays to restore glory to one of the league's most historically decorated franchises.
I am not saying Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke are not up to the task. I am merely questioning why the team has seemingly refused to even consider other options. Are they truly convinced that Harbaugh is the man for the job, or are they merely swept up in a wave of hype, emotion, and nostalgia?
I hope the former is the case.
Keep the Faith!