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Bohm: NFL success not guaranteed for Harbaugh

Last week I got an e-mail from a friend who graduated from Stanford a few years ago suggesting that Jim Harbaugh should have a one-hour TV special with Jim Gray to announce his “decision” on where he will coach next season.

This was obviously an allusion to LeBron James’ “The Decision,” and while the national courtship of Harbaugh may not have reached epic James proportions, it sure came close. From the ways in which he was pursued, one would think that Harbaugh was a messiah sure to turn a decrepit San Francisco franchise into the perennial contender that it used to be.

I’m going to suggest something that 49ers fans-and even most Stanford fans (even the bitter ones who felt dumped Friday afternoon)-probably don’t want to hear: Jim Harbaugh, in all likelihood, will not be the savior for the Niners that he was for Stanford. In fact, he very well might be a huge disappointment. Blasphemy, I know.

History isn’t exactly on Harbaugh’s side. In recent years, successful, highly coveted college coaches that have turned to the pro ranks have widely failed.

Example one: Steve Spurrier. Spurrier left his post at the University of Florida to become the coach of the Washington Redskins in 2002. Seen as a can’t-miss coach, he was given the most lucrative contract in NFL history at the time (five-year, $25 million-exactly what Harbaugh received from San Francisco). Two years, 12 wins and 20 losses later, Spurrier was done in the NFL. He now coaches at South Carolina.

Example two: Butch Davis. Butch Davis was probably as equipped as any college coach headed to the pros-his Miami Hurricane teams were chock full of future NFL stars. Still, he managed just a 24-35 record in three and a half seasons as the Cleveland Browns head coach from 2001-2004. Like Spurrier, Davis is back in the college game, coaching North Carolina.

Example three: Nick Saban. Like Spurrier, Saban was a previous national championship-winning coach when he took an NFL job. Saban left LSU to lead the Miami Dolphins in 2005. He coached two seasons, neither of which netted a playoff appearance, and was seen as a disappointment. With a 15-17 record overall, he was out as Dolphins coach. Saban, too, is back in the college game, and he won his second national championship last season at Alabama.

Example four: Bobby Petrino. After leading Louisville to an unexpected Orange Bowl victory (sound familiar, Stanford fans?) Petrino became head coach for the Atlanta Falcons. His first and only season with the Falcons can be described as nothing short of a disaster. He resigned midway through the year, after going 3-10, to take his current job with the University of Arkansas.

It isn’t just in recent years that coaches have flopped in the NFL. Lou Holtz famously failed as New York Jets coach in 1976. Some of you may point to Pete Carroll leading the Seattle Seahawks to the playoffs this year (with a 7-9 record, no less) as a sign of success for a college-turned-pro coach. I would say that the jury is still out. After all, Carroll struggled in previous stints as an NFL coach with both the Jets and the New England Patriots.

So what is the lesson here? Success in the college ranks does not necessarily translate to the NFL. All four of the above examples have succeeded in their second stints in the NCAA but couldn’t cut it in the NFL.

What is the difference, you might ask? There are many.

First, and foremost, recruiting is lost in the NFL. Half the battle in college is getting good players to come to your school, a big reason Harbaugh turned the Stanford program around. He was able to get blue-chip recruits like Andrew Luck and Shayne Skov to come to the Farm. In the NFL there is less courtship, as money is king (insert Cam Newton joke here).

Second, NFL players are paid professionals who see their coaches more as peers and less as superiors. That means strict discipline is not responded to as well in the NFL, and players are less likely to react well to the collegiate rah-rah attitude of many college coaches, such as Harbaugh.

Lastly, there are the obvious rule differences between the NFL and college games. Many of the imaginative, unbalanced sets that Harbaugh used at Stanford aren’t allowed in the NFL. Overall, the NFL limits the creativity of coaches. This isn’t to say that Harbaugh can’t maximize his creativity within these boundaries. He probably can and will, but a significant difference remains.

So will Harbaugh succeed in San Francisco? Maybe, but I wouldn’t bet on it. It’s not like the 49ers have a loaded roster (or a quarterback), and history isn’t exactly on his side. If Harbaugh is back coaching at the college level in a few years, this writer won’t be particularly surprised.

Daniel Bohm wishes Harbaugh the best, but is keeping history in mind. Tell him you’re not bitter either at bohmd@stanford.edu.

  • Mitchell

    The Niners roster not loaded?! If I’m not mistaken I was hearing many experts picking the Niners to win the west and some even talked super bowl. Just refer back to the Vegas spreads at the beginning if the season. I’m not denying the lack of QB, but if there’s one thing Harbaugh has proven is that he can find and sculpt NFL talent QB’s. I’m tired of hearing that he had Andrew Luck. He recruited and molded Andrew Luck into the most highly scouted NFL prospect since John Elway. I’m not arguing that Harbaugh’s success is no guaranteed, but your argument as no basis. All those prior college coaches were also at schools, that let’s face it, will give a brick a scholarship as long as he can play football. Harbaugh developed a BCS title contender team with the most strict academic recruiting requirements in the country!

  • strag

    I’m tired of people bashing the Niners & Harbaugh. We have many great players. and yeah, we have areas of need such as QB and pass protection. But thats when Harbaugh comes in. I don’t believe Stanford was “loaded” when Harbaugh took them over. they were 1-11 for crying out loud! He turned them into a 11-1 team in a four year span. The 49ers are NOT a 1-11 team to begin with. They are a much better team thatn they showed this season, they were just under bad coaching and a bad QB. Once we find a solid QB which we will this year, i hope you delete this post because we will be in the playoffs next season or the one after that. If Pete Caroll could do it with he weak Seahawks (Harbaugh OWNED Caroll in the USC vs Standford game) then theres no question why Harbaugh could do much more with us.

  • strag

    but you’re from Standford so I get where all you negativity comes from. I know you guys wanted him back as a coach and thats why you wanna say he’s not capable of being good in the NFl.. because you’re jealous or something? C’mon man.

  • soo

    Yes, Harbaugh turned Stanford from 1-11 to 12-1 team, but the two years before that 1-11 season we were 5-6 and 4-7. We weren’t “loaded,” but we definitely had more talent than the 1-11 record shows. That is why Walt Harris was fired. It’s not like Stanford were a perpetually horrible team, we were just very mediocre and then had a very poor season.

  • soo

    Yes, Harbaugh turned Stanford from 1-11 to 12-1 team, but the two years before that 1-11 season we were 5-6 and 4-7. We weren’t “loaded,” but we definitely had more talent than the 1-11 record shows. That is why Walt Harris was fired. It’s not like Stanford were a perpetually horrible team, we were just very mediocre and then had a very poor season.

    With that being said, I still think Harbaugh is a tremendous coach and everyone at Stanford should be wishing him the best of luck in his NFL coaching career.

  • Boots

    While I agree with the writer that Coach Harbaugh’s success is not by any means guaranteed – do you really see NFL guys making millions per year being persuaded to play with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind or to win with class and cruelty – I do wish him all the best and thank him for a memorable season. Harbaugh’s greatest strengths, to this fan, were his recruiting and motivation skills, rather than game management or play calling. But then again, maybe it was David Shaw or Greg Roman who decided not to give it to Toby on 4th and 1 in the Sun Bowl or to throw with 1 minute left last year against Cal? Who really knows?

    I personally hope he does well and beats the crap out of Pete Carroll twice a year, plus the last thing we need is another Mike Montgomery situation where he doesn’t do well and is back in the college ranks, but across the bay, in 2013/2014…

  • Cordell

    The records of all former Stanford coaches lost to the NFL strongly suggest Jim Harbaugh will do well in at the pro level. Both Bill Walsh and Denny Green won 61% of their NFL games and their teams almost always made the playoffs two years into their tenure. Bill Walsh went on to win three SuperBowls and was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame. John Ralston took a 4-9-1 Denver Bronco team and finished 9-5 in his fifth and final year while compiling a 34-33-1 NFL record overall. While great recruiting is indeed half the battle for a successful coach at the NCAA Division I level as you claim, Stanford’s admissions office largely negates whatever skills in this area its football coach might possess. Consequently, if a football coach succeeds at Stanford, he will likely succeed in the NFL.

    I thank Coach Harbaugh for restoring Stanford football to the top echelons of the NCAA and wish him the best of luck in his future NFL career. Let us hope that, like Bill Walsh, he will “follow his bliss” and return to Stanford once he becomes disillusioned with the pros despite great success there.

  • SUXX2005

    Only time will tell what coach Harbaugh’s NFL career will be like. If he could find a great QB or be able to develop whoever 9ers currently have into a great one, that probably will make a difference ( recall that we had our first winning season as soon as we had Luck as the starting quarterback).

    As a fan, I can’t thank enough what coach Harbaugh has done for the Stanford football and wish him the best in the NFL.