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Jim Harbaugh's future hanging over Orange Bowl, all of football

Basketball fans remember well the 2003 Syracuse-Kansas NCAA final, not just for Carmelo Anthony's heroics, but also for the infamous postgame interview in which forlorn Jayhawks coach Roy Williams told CBS' Bonnie Bernstein: "I could give a s--- about North Carolina right now." Days later, of course, Williams became the coach at UNC.

Late Monday night, ESPN's Michelle Tafoya may have the unenviable task of conducting a similarly awkward interview with Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh following Stanford's game against Virginia Tech. While the Orange Bowl should be a fun on-field matchup, much of the sport cares less about the result than about the possible aftermath. Simply put, Harbaugh -- who's taken the Cardinal from 1-11 to 11-1 -- is the most sought-after coach in football today, in both the college and professional ranks. And his immediate future could impact the long-term direction of several prominent teams and franchises.

It starts first and foremost with the former quarterback's alma mater, Michigan, which hadn't officially announced anything as of this writing but which will almost certainly be parting ways with embattled coach Rich Rodriguez after three largely disastrous seasons. There was some thought Rodriguez could earn a reprieve with a Gator Bowl win over Mississippi State, but a humiliating 52-14 defeat likely sealed his fate.

Michigan AD Dave Brandon has been conspicuous in his silence, leaving Rodriguez hanging in the wind. "You're asking the wrong guy," Rodriguez said after Saturday's game when asked whether he thought he'd be back next season.

The most obvious explanation for why Brandon hasn't pulled the plug is that he's waiting until after the Orange Bowl in order to spare presumed top target Harbaugh from a potential firestorm. As long as the Michigan job remains filled, media members can't yet ask the direct Bernstein/Williams-type question.

The closest anyone came at Sunday's pregame press conference in Miami was: "Does it bother you that your name is being brought up so much for other coaching jobs even though you've really given no indication that you want to leave Stanford?" The problem is, Harbaugh also hasn't given a firm indication that he's staying. Sunday he provided his stock response: "I just talk about the job that I have and none others."

There was one notable and unusual questioner in the audience: a reporter from Charlotte who asked Harbaugh to reminisce about his final season as an NFL quarterback in 2001 with the Carolina Panthers. Why would a reporter from Charlotte be covering the Orange Bowl? Because the Panthers are currently in the market for a new coach and also happen to own the No. 1 pick in next spring's draft -- a pick that could potentially be used to take Harbaugh's quarterback, Andrew Luck.

But the Panthers are hardly Harbaugh's only interested NFL suitor. The San Francisco 49ers, whom Harbaugh could coach without having to relocate from his present residence, are also on the market and reportedly very interested. As SI's Peter King tweeted Saturday: "One coach told me the other day: 'This could turn into the Jim Harbaugh Derby.' Just watch. It's going to play out over the next few days."

For college fans, the potential dominoes will depend first and foremost on whether Harbaugh decides he's a Michigan Man or an NFL man. If he's the former, the biggest questions become who will succeeded him at Stanford, how will the move affect Luck's NFL decision and what the heck will the vintage smashmouth coach do with all those spread-offense recruits Rodriguez spent three years assembling? Would the Big Ten's Offensive Player of the Year, quarterback Denard Robinson, be moved to slot receiver? Would he move himself to another school entirely? (Ironically, Rodriguez's hiring three years ago cost the Wolverines current All-SEC quarterback Ryan Mallett.)

If however Harbaugh goes to the pros, or if we've all misread the situation entirely, Michigan could cause a different ripple effect. It could be 2007 all over again, with LSU coach Les Miles awaiting a call to come home to his alma mater. While it seems like Bayou Bengals fans finally came to embrace their eccentric but successful coach over the course of this season, Miles knows in the SEC he'll always be one 7-5 season away from getting the boot. Michigan is his admitted dream job, and he'd take it in a nanosecond, suddenly opening up a top 10 program in the nation's most high-profile conference.

But who knows whether Michigan wants Miles as much as Miles wants Michigan. The other name being tossed about is San Diego State's Brady Hoke, a former Lloyd Carr assistant and suddenly hot commodity who turned down overtures from Minnesota. But there's a significant faction of Michigan fans who'd rather keep Rodriguez than take a chance on a mid-major coach with a career 47-50 mark.

It may well be Harbaugh or bust for the Wolverines.

The biggest upset of all will be if, after all the hoopla, Harbaugh winds up staying at Stanford. Stranger things have happened this coaching carousel. (Like a coach getting himself fired 16 days into his employment.)

But that probably makes too much sense. The great Harbaugh Derby could play out any number of ways, but whatever the result, it's sure to be clunky -- starting with that interview on the field Monday night.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany knows well the jokes that were circulating in the aftermath of his conference's embarrassing 0-for-5 New Year's Day bowl showing. He's even willing to join in the fray himself. "We didn't produce any legends yesterday," said Delany when reached at the airport on his way out of Los Angeles on Sunday morning.

I've always cautioned against reading too much into bowl records, and as Delany pointed out, the Big Ten wasn't favored in any of those games. But there's no question both the 0-fer and the lopsided scores in the Capital One (Alabama beating co-champ Michigan State 49-7) and Gator (Mississippi State crushing Michigan 52-14) were a blow for a league that has spent four years trying to overcome the backlash that first ensued after Ohio State's 41-14 loss to Florida in that year's championship game. That loss marked the beginning of an unofficial rivalry between fans of the SEC and Big Ten, and the former league only reinforced its superiority over the latter with three head-to-head wins on Saturday.

"The SEC has demonstrated over a period of time that they're the strongest conference," Delany said. "The rest of us are looking to close the gap, but we've still got a little ways to go. ... We got beat pretty good by Alabama, but that's not a shock. The one thing I knew for sure was that Alabama was not the 15th-ranked team in the country."

Bowl season is often a double-edged sword for the Big Ten, which with its large fan followings and TV draws lands more high-profile bowl matchups than most leagues (it added the Gator Bowl as a third Big Ten-SEC New Year's game this year), but does so with the added risk of falling on its face like it did Saturday. After all, the leagues with the most bowl wins so far are the ACC and Mountain West (four apiece), but many of those wins came against the likes of six-win teams like East Carolina, UTEP and Tennessee in obscure December time slots.

"It may be a strength, it may be a weakness, but I'm always looking for the best game," said Delany. "I push our people to play the ACC in basketball, the SEC in football. The risk is when you're not up to snuff, it means you're not going to go 8-2."

The league gets one last notable chance to redeem itself in Tuesday night's Ohio State-Arkansas Sugar Bowl, a game that has garnered added intrigue due to the controversy surrounding the delayed suspensions of Terrelle Pryor and four other Buckeyes. "It's more important now than if we were 7-0 [in the bowls]," said Delany.

As for the oft-mocked Legends and Leaders division labels, it doesn't sound like the commissioner is relenting on his creations. "People have the right to agree or disagree, but they honor the objective of what we're trying to do," Delany said. "We had a rough day, but when you consider what we're trying to do with the concept of leaders -- I think everyone has to pick themselves up and move on with your life. If you can't do that, then you really haven't learned anything about what it means to be a leader."

Congratulations, Maryland. You win the award for strangest coaching search of the season. Having forced out reigning ACC Coach of the year Ralph Friedgen in part because the Terps were having trouble filling seats, the school passed on perceived front-runner Mike Leach at the 11th hour Sunday in favor of Connecticut's Randy Edsall.

Edsall is without a doubt a great coach, and the eccentric Leach isn't for everyone. But did Maryland even make an upgrade here? Did Edsall? A source with knowledge of the search told TheWashington Post that the school got cold feet about Leach. "They wanted to make the conservative, safe, non-confrontational hire," the source said. "That's the bottom line."

Hmm. Conservative, safe and non-confrontational. Sounds a lot like ... Ralph Friedgen.

The surprise over the Edsall hire can't compare to the shockwaves that reverberated through the sport this weekend over the news that polarizing former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis is returning to college -- to be Will Muschamp's offensive coordinator at Florida. Wowsers.

Weis' acumen as an offensive coach is unquestioned, but the one consensus following his failed stint in South Bend was that he's first and foremost an NFL guy. He returned to the league this season as Todd Haley's coordinator in Kansas City and helped the Chiefs improve from 4-12 to 10-6 and playoff bound. If anything, Weis seemed destined to eventually become an NFL head coach.

Weis confirmed to the Kansas City Star that the move is more about family than football. He's told friends he got to spend more time with family as a college coach than as an NFL coach, and he'll get to do so even more now that his son Charlie Jr., a high school senior and aspiring football coach himself, is set to enroll at Florida and work in the football program. The family also bought a home in Jupiter, Fla., several years ago with the intent of eventually relocating there.

"This opportunity is one of those unique situations where I can go to a great institution where my son goes to matriculate and be able to spend the next bunch of years watching my son grow," Weis told the paper.

As for the Florida side of things? Muschamp, like mentor Nick Saban, is a staunch proponent of the pro-style offense, and Weis is unquestionably a pro-style guy. If nothing else, he should be able to lure elite drop-back quarterback recruits to Gainesville.

But I remain extremely skeptical that this is the right direction for Florida. Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer fit well in Gainesville because they were college guys. Weis' hire signals that Muschamp intends to turn the program into an NFL training factory -- exactly the kind of approach that ultimately doomed Weis at Notre Dame.

The unexpected opening at Pittsburgh coupled with Rodriguez's forthcoming firing at Michigan prompted speculation over a wild and downright juicy possibility: Why doesn't West Virginia's archrival hire Rich Rod? After all, who knows the Big East and the Backyard Brawl better? Fans on both sides would love it. How nasty would the atmosphere be the first time Rodriguez returned to Morgantown?

However, I'm told it's highly unlikely. After the mess Haywood left behind, Pitt AD Steve Pederson figures to be extremely cautious this time around. Rodriguez's West Virginia ties don't matter nearly as much as the considerable baggage he accrued over the past three years. There's no telling who Pitt will land next, only that Pederson, according to the school's statement, will explore a "wider pool of candidates" -- i.e., not just sitting head coaches this time around.

• I've never seen a more emotional victory celebration than TCU's after winning the Rose Bowl, as I described in my column Saturday night. National championship or not, the win clearly meant the world to a group of players who never dreamed of even playing in a Rose Bowl when they signed at TCU. "This lets everyone know we're a program, not a one-hit wonder," said receiver Jeremy Kerley, one of 14 Horned Frogs starters who ended their college careers with the victory.

• Following its predictable Fiesta Bowl rout of Connecticut and 12-2 finish, Oklahoma figures to be on the short list of contenders for preseason No. 1 next fall. Quarterback Landry Jones, who broke his own school bowl record with 429 passing yards, will be one of as many as 17 returning starters. Of course, he'll likely be without all-everything receiver Ryan Broyles, who, if it was his last game, went out with a bang: 13 catches for a school bowl-record 170 yards.

• Add Alabama to that short list following its 49-7 Capital One Bowl demolition of previously 11-1 Michigan State, even though Nick Saban may lose as many as six underclassmen to the draft. One of them, linebacker Courtney Upshaw, had a monstrous game against the Spartans. Meanwhile, quarterback Greg McElroy went 13-of-17 for 220 yards and a touchdown to complete an overlooked, marvelous senior year in which he completed 70.9 percent of his passes for 2,987 yards, 20 touchdowns and just five interceptions.

• Urban Meyer's last game as Florida coach felt ... anticlimactic. Yes, the Gators sent him out a winner and gave him a Gatorade bath and a game ball, and yes, Meyer proclaimed himself "at peace" after the win. There's no question his Florida reign was spectacular (two BCS titles, a 65-15 record), but we're still talking about the coronation of a six-year stint. Plus, after he spends next season at ESPN (he's already met with execs), does anyone doubt we'll see him on a sideline in 2012?

• NCAA coordinator of officials Dave Parry told the AP he expects the rules committee to look into adding something like the NFL's 10-second run off at the end of games following the controversial finish to North Carolina's Music City Bowl win over Tennessee. Meanwhile, Vols coach Derek Dooley may have become the first guy ever to receive two congratulatory handshakes from opposing coaches (LSU's Les Miles and UNC's Butch Davis), before ultimately losing both games.

• As much of a stir as the Tennessee game caused, fans were far more outraged by the finish to the Kansas State-Syracuse Pinstripe Bowl, in which a devastating excessive celebration flag on Wildcats receiver Adrian Hilburn for saluting the crowd essentially ended his team's chance to send the game to overtime. (K-State had to attempt its two-point conversion from the 18-yard line.) Parry defended the call, saying the player "drew attention to himself." Refs really need to distinguish between celebrating and taunting -- especially in that kind of situation.

• Nebraska finished with the same record (10-4) as it did last year, but Bo Pelini's program is facing all sorts of offseason questions this time around. The Huskers' 19-7 Holiday Bowl loss to 6-6 Washington -- the same team it beat 56-21 in September -- marked the lowest point yet in the demise of an offense that looked so powerful in early October. Question No. 1: Will quarterback Taylor Martinez leave after repeatedly clashing with Pelini, and will he even keep his job if he does stay?

• Last week's Iowa-Missouri Insight Bowl spotlighted two breakout stars we'll be seeing a lot more of in 2011. Starting in place of the suspended Adam Robinson, Hawkeyes freshman tailback Marcus Coker bulldozed the Tigers' defense to the tune of 219 yards on 33 carries, evoking shades of Shonn Greene before him. Meanwhile, Mizzou sophomore receiver T.J. Moe set career highs with 15 catches for 152 yards to cap a 1,045-yard season.

• Mind you, Moe's production next season may depend on whether quarterback Blaine Gabbert returns for his senior year. NFL draft pundits are very high on the 6-foot-5, 235-pounder, but he was inconsistent this season. Gabbert had a career night in the bowl game (41-of-57 for 434 yards) before a brutal fourth-quarter pick-six that allowed Iowa to retake the lead. It seems clear Gabbert could use another year, but the NFL values physical traits over production.

• Notre Dame's Sun Bowl demolition of Miami was arguably the biggest moment for the program since the great tease that was the Bush Push game in 2005. In earning their first bowl win over a BCS-conference foe since the 1994 Cotton Bowl, the Irish (8-5) ended their first season under Brian Kelly on a four-game winning streak. Dayne Crist will likely regain his role as starter next year, but freshman Tommy Rees went 15-of-29 for 201 yards and two scores in Crist's absence.

• ESPN sent out a release Sunday boasting that the Wisconsin-TCU Rose Bowl was the highest-rated non-NFL broadcast in cable history, garnering an 11.7 overnight rating. It conveniently left out the fact that it was the game's third-lowest number of the BCS era. It's hard to say how much the move from network to cable impacted the ratings, but the Oklahoma-UConn Fiesta Bowl was a predictable dud, drawing a 6.7 rating, second-lowest in BCS history.

• If college football had a One Shining Moment, Florida International coach Mario Cristobal would earn some serious face time. His team's dramatic win over Toledo -- including a successful hook and ladder on fourth-and-17 -- was one of the most captivating of this bowl season.

• You know all those stories you've read about empty seats and unsold tickets at bowls? By my unofficial calculations, attendance at the first 26 bowls (not including the two new ones) is down a whopping 0.9 percent from last year.

• Of course, bowls are known to inflate those numbers, which include unsold tickets from schools' allotments. The Gator Bowl claimed a sellout (77,497) for Michigan-Mississippi State, but SI.com' Andy Staples, who covered the game, told me, "I have no doubt they sold every ticket, but between 15k-20k came dressed as empty seats."

Phil Burnett needs a job. How do I know this? Because the veteran assistant coach follows me on Twitter, and when I clicked on his profile recently, it said right at the top: "A GREAT defensive line coach that needs a JOB!" And one of his most recent tweets at the time said: "Looking for a Defensive Line job ... HELP!!"

For every story you read this time of year about a school firing its head coach, there are as many as nine more anonymous assistants left scrambling for a new job. Burnett spent the past eight seasons at Ball State under Brady Hoke and then successor Stan Parrish. Following its recent 4-8 season, the school fired Parrish and replaced him with Elon's Pete Lembo, who retained just two of Parrish's assistants. Burnett was not one of them. So he's taken to Twitter.

"No help yet from twitter but I'm going to keep trying because you never know," said Burnett. "As you know ... its who you know. ... Things will move around more after the bowl games."

Burnett is counting on his connection to Hoke, whom he first worked under as a GA at Oregon State in the early '90s and who himself was once a renowned defensive line coach at Michigan. When Hoke left for San Diego State two years ago, Burnett stayed behind "because things were going good here at BSU + my mom still lives in Hobart, Ind. So I wanted to stay with [Parrish]."

Based on his Twitter timeline, Burnett has apparently been biding his time watching bowl games, as most of his tweets are in-game observations. But he occasionally mixes in something like this: "A perfect day to find a job. If you need a Defensive Line Coach.....let me know!!!!"

If and when Burnett gets a job, we may see a whole bunch of unemployed assistants rushing to join Twitter themselves.

(Incidentally, our entire conversation took place over Twitter.)

Mini-previews for three of this week's big games:

Orange Bowl: Stanford vs. Virginia Tech, Jan. 3 (8:30 p.m. ET): Andrew Luck's father engineered a controversial coaching change at West Virginia. Luck's own head coach may be changing jobs after the game. But the third-year sophomore is nothing if not focused and will come out and pick apart the Hokies' defense.

Sugar Bowl: Ohio State vs. Arkansas, Jan. 4 (8:30 p.m. ET): I liked the Buckeyes in this one before their quarterback became enveloped in scandal and an ongoing war of words with Kirk Herbstreit. Ohio State's defense is still well-equipped to create turnovers, but how many might the Buckeyes' distracted offense cough up?

Cotton Bowl: LSU vs. Texas A&M, Jan. 7 (8 p.m. ET): Depending on whether the Michigan job is open by Friday, Les Miles may have to hold another one of his "Have a Great Day" press conferences the afternoon of the game. Unlike this year's New Year's Day bowl games, this one could be quite the defensive struggle.

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