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 firstname.lastname@example.org.