Ann Killion
Saturday January 8th, 2011

SAN FRANCISCO -- The coronation finally took place Friday afternoon. In the historic Palace Hotel, with a musical introduction worthy of the Academy Awards, the 49ers awarded their franchise and its future to Jim Harbaugh.

It was a somewhat surprising end to a weeklong saga. The woebegone 49ers landed this era's hottest coaching prospect -- one who has kept the football world twisting and turning. The hire represented a major coup for young 49ers owner Jed York, who won out over other bidders for Harbaugh's services.

And it signaled a hopeful embrace of the 49ers glorious past, when Bill Walsh traveled the short distance from the Stanford campus to the 49ers headquarters to make over a failing NFL franchise.

Now only one little question remains.

Can Harbaugh succeed in the NFL?

Harbaugh made football swoon by transforming Stanford to a 12-1 national-title contender from the 1-11 mess he inherited, by winning the Orange Bowl and by developing the country's best pro quarterback prospect in Andrew Luck.

But the NFL history books are littered with hot-prospect college coaches who failed miserably at the highest level: Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban, Bobby Petrino, Dennis Erickson, Butch Davis.

"I don't really make comparisons with myself and other coaches," Harbaugh said. "I've been underestimated. I always find that to be a wonderful competitive advantage."

The 49ers are banking -- to the reported tune of a five-year, $25 million deal -- that Harbaugh is different. It's a huge risk for a franchise that hasn't made the playoffs since 2002 and has faltered badly under back-to-back rookie head coaches in recent years: Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary.

But the 49ers targeted Harbaugh immediately: he was their Plan A through X, and Plans Y & Z wouldn't help them build a new stadium or sell tickets. Rather than go after a seasoned NFL coach, York and his new general manager, in-house hire Trent Baalke, were convinced Harbaugh can be a success story -- in the mold of Jimmy Johnson, Dick Vermeil and, yes, Walsh.

And they have legitimate reasons for their belief.

Unlike some of the past failures, Harbaugh has a long NFL pedigree. He spent 15 seasons playing quarterback for five different teams. He spent two years working as an offensive assistant under Bill Callahan for the Oakland Raiders. His brother John is head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, and acted as a sounding board during Harbaugh's decision-making process. He runs a pro style offense at Stanford. Half of Harbaugh's Stanford staff has an NFL pedigree. He's always been pointed directly toward an NFL job.

Harbaugh understands how the NFL works and won't be surprised by anything about it.

And he understands offense, which the 49ers desperately need. Singletary offended sensibilities in the land of Joe Montana by saying that he didn't think that the quarterback was particularly important, just one of 11 positions on offense.

"Maybe I'm a little biased, but I think the quarterback is the most important position on a football team and the most difficult position in all of sports," Harbaugh said.

Harbaugh said he plans to run a West Coast offense, "and install it in San Francisco, the birthplace of the West Coast offense."

That's pretty much all the disenchanted fan base needs to hear.

Echoing the journey Walsh took 31 years earlier resonates with both Harbaugh and York, who sought advice from his uncle, former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo, Jr., the man who hired Walsh.

"He's a most important person," Harbaugh said of Walsh. "I had a chance to meet him at Stanford. I have a picture of him on my computer screen that I look at everyday. He's a legendary coach and a great man. You can't put Bill Walsh and Jim Harbaugh in the same sentence. I have a long way to go before any comparison will be made."

But the comparison will always loom. Because the comparison with Walsh is there for every 49ers coach.

Walsh's health was failing when Harbaugh came to Stanford in 2007, but he made it to Harbaugh's introductory press conference and spent time with the new Stanford coach.

Later that summer, at Walsh's memorial service held on the Stanford campus, Harbaugh was in attendance with his entire team. In sharp contrast, then-49ers coach Nolan didn't interrupt training camp to bring the 49ers the 18 miles to the service. That rankled some of the longtime 49ers -- one of many disconnects that have developed between the team and its legacy over the years.

York is trying to repair the damage that took place in the years after his parents John and Denise DeBartolo York took control of the team from DeBartolo.

"I see it as respecting the past but building for the future," York said. "Different people, different times. We respect what Bill Walsh created but we need to be our own individuals."

The chance to tread in Walsh's footsteps certainly held appeal for Harbaugh. So did the ability to stay on the West Coast, where all five of his children live. By being in the NFC, Harbaugh avoids awkward regular meetings with his brother John -- though they will play at Baltimore in the 2011 season. And by choosing the 49ers over a potential offer from Miami, Harbaugh lands in an infinitely winnable division without any Belichick-like competition (he will, however, resume his tense "What's your deal" rivalry with Seahawks coach Pete Carroll).

"The chance to compete at the highest level was overwhelming to me," he said.

He got the NFL job. The 49ers got their man. Now comes the hard part.

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