- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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More than a week after firing Eric Mangini and a few days before they had the chance to meet Rex Ryan for the first time, the New York Jets held a clandestine interview with a future Super Bowl coach.
On Jan. 8, 2009, they spent about three hours with Jim Harbaugh in a hotel conference room near Phoenix.
Because Harbaugh was in the middle of his third recruiting campaign at Stanford, the Jets agreed to keep it hush-hush. (It leaked a couple of days later.) This was the western swing of the Jets' coaching search. Before Harbaugh, they interviewed Arizona Cardinals assistant Russ Grimm.
Owner Woody Johnson was there. So were general manager Mike Tannenbaum and two of his front-office lieutenants, Joey Clinkscales and Scott Cohen. They were impressed with Harbaugh. He was prepared and dynamic. They sensed an innate leadership quality -- an air of confidence -- as soon as he walked in the room.
Who could've guessed that, four years later, he'd be coaching the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII?
In the end, Harbaugh wasn't seriously considered for the Jets' job because they felt he lacked experience -- only two seasons at Stanford, three years as the University of San Diego head coach and a couple of seasons as an Oakland Raiders assistant.
Three days after the Harbaugh interview, the Jets met Ryan, fell in love and you know the rest of the story. It was Ryan's only victory, so to speak, over a Harbaugh.
Jim and John Harbaugh, who will face each other Sunday in the HarBowl, have inflicted a lot of pain on Ryan -- on and off the field. You might say he needs to Rex-orcise some demons.
In 2008, Ryan lost out to John for the Baltimore Ravens' head-coaching job, a decision that still chafes him. In terms of actual competition, he's 0-3 against the Harbaughs, having been outscored 78-26 -- including a 34-0 blowout loss this season to the 49ers.
The Harbaugh family is intertwined in Ryan's football career -- the past five years, anyway. Let's play the what-if game.
What if Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti had picked Ryan over Harbaugh to replace Brian Billick? Would the Ravens have made the playoffs five straight years?
Ryan, a popular Ravens assistant, was the chalk pick. He wanted the job badly, and he had a lot of support within the locker room. Bisciotti made the outside-the-box choice, hiring Harbaugh from the outside because he felt it would be better for team chemistry.
Bisciotti once explained that he "thought it was going to be tough for Rex to bring the whole team together after him spending 10 years on one side of the ball that was the dominant side of the ball."
It was a gutsy decision, but who can argue with the results?
Ryan was stung, deeply.
"I will always think it was B.S.," Ryan said during his first season with the Jets. "I always thought I was the right guy for the job."
Ryan remained the Ravens' defensive coordinator and, from all accounts, he got along well with Harbaugh. He has publicly thanked Harbaugh on many occasions for giving him that opportunity. Ryan capitalized, parlaying the Ravens' success in 2008 into the Jets' gig.
Like Bisciotti, Johnson had a chance to go against the grain by hiring a Harbaugh four Januarys ago. Maybe a visionary would've recognized his bright future, but on paper, there wasn't much to go on. After all, Jim was only 9-15 in his first two seasons at Stanford. It would've been like using a top-10 draft pick on a project.
A few days after his interview with the Jets, Harbaugh issued a statement, pledging his allegiance to Stanford and denying interest in other coaching positions. Oh, really? Did he fly to Phoenix just for kicks?
Obviously, the 49ers made a great choice, but people were saying the same thing about the Jets two years after Ryan was hired. He, too, started out by reaching his conference championship game in back-to-back years. He lost them both, Harbaugh didn't, and now America is subjected to the BroBowl.
As for Ryan, he's practically a lame-duck coach. On Sunday, he'll watch one of the Harbaughs win the title he guaranteed for the Jets a couple of years ago. Who knows? Maybe the football gods are plotting an all-Ryan Super Bowl, Rex versus Rob.
Here's a guarantee: That would be a heck of a lot more entertaining than the HarBowl.
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