Jim Harbaugh led Stanford to its best season in the modern era. Now he's off to a new challenge.
It appears Stanford fought to retain Harbaugh. According to ESPN NFL analyst Chris Mortensen, Harbaugh met with top Stanford officials Thursday, and the school increased its contract offer from December.
The late gambit wasn't enough. He will replace fired coach Mike Singletary.
But who will replace Harbaugh? The initial reaction from many Stanford fans: Nobody. Harbaugh was special. His shoes are just too big.
When Bob Bowlsby hired Harbaugh after the Cardinal went 1-11 in 2006, most folks went "What?" Oh, people knew who Harbaugh was -- a longtime NFL quarterback -- and it was interesting to learn how successful he was at San Diego, but few thought much of the choice. And when Harbaugh barked, "I vow I will attack this endeavor with enthusiasm unknown to mankind," he sort of seemed, well, slightly manic.
And Stanford is not a manic sort of place.
Harbaugh was manic. And he also turned out to be a hell of a coach and a hell of a motivator. Sure, he struck gold when he signed quarterback Andrew Luck, but Harbaugh deserves all the credit for hiring an outstanding staff, recruiting well and rebuilding a program into a surprising national power.
His first season, his outmanned Cardinal beat No. 2 USC 24-23, despite being a 41-point underdog. That -- the 4-8 finish wasn't particularly inspiring-- was only a first hint of what was to come.
He went 5-7 his second year, 8-5 his third and 12-1 this season. Along the way, he sold his players on a blue collar work ethic, announced, "We bow to no program at Stanford," and made good on that by running up the score on USC in 2009 and taunting Trojans coach Pete "What's your deal?" Carroll afterwards.
What's Harbaugh's deal? It doesn't feel hyperbolic to say his marriage with Stanford -- albeit brief -- was lightning in a bottle. Coaching magic.
It's also understandable why he left. His stock will never be higher. Harbaugh is as competitive a guy as you'll ever meet. He wants to test himself all the time and on the highest level. If you coach football, that's the NFL.
And know what? If he washes out -- if the 49ers locker room knows only enthusiasm known to jaded rich guys -- then no matter. Harbaugh's track record in college is so good he'd again be a hot coaching prospect should he want to return in the future.
As for Stanford going forward, there is one hire that would immediately quash the despondency among fans who just days ago were flying high: Boise State's Chris Petersen. There are more than a few folks who believe this is the sort of job that could lure Petersen away from the Broncos. And the cerebral Petersen would be a good fit.
The top internal candidate would be offensive coordinator David Shaw. Shaw would bring continuity for quarterback Andrew Luck -- no, Luck won't reconsider his decision to return because of Harbaugh's move -- and likely would try to maintain the Harbaughian culture. He's a Stanford graduate and has significant NFL coaching experience. His father, Willie, was an assistant coach at Stanford from 1974-76 and again from 1989-91.
While hiring Shaw might not have much pizazz with fans and media, it would resonate positively in the locker room. It also would continue a Stanford tradition of giving black coaches an opportunity. At present, there are no black head coaches in the Pac-10(Colorado joins next year in the Pac-12 with Jon Embree). And, yes, that is still something worth raising an eyebrow over.
There is a third option: Bowlsby again going off the grid. Let's face it: He's had plenty of time to contemplate who will replace Harbaugh. The general feeling all season was Harbaugh was going to bolt, either to Michigan or the NFL. So Bowlsby surely isn't flat-footed on the news today. Here's a guess he's already sent out some feelers.
Pause for a moment, though, Stanford fans. What a week, eh? Your Cardinal posts a dominant performance in a victory over Virginia Tech in the Discover Orange Bowl -- yeah! -- Luck announces his return -- yeah! -- scuttlebutt starts to surface that Harbaugh is seriously considering returning to the Farm -- yeah! -- and then (boom) it's announced that Harbaugh is headed across the peninsula to the 49ers.
But don't get too morose. There is no reason to believe that Stanford is headed back to 1-11, to Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris. A winning culture has been established, much more so than when Tyrone Willingham left for Notre Dame in 2001, knowing full well his recruiting had been sub-par. The right coach has a good shot to maintain that culture.
Stanford is never going to be a team that regularly goes 12-1. It wasn't headed that way even with Harbaugh. But the Cardinal can and should remain competitive at a high level on a regular basis.
It just needs to attack this endeavor with enthusiasm unknown to mankind.