The nation got to see what the big deal was all about on Monday night. The package deal that has mystified Stanford opponents and consumed Bay Area football fans for the better part of a year.
Jim Harbaugh + Andrew Luck = magic.
That combination has transformed an afterthought of a college program into one of the nation's best, a trick of alchemy turning football futility into championship material.
That combination has the potential to transform an NFL bottom-feeder into a perennial champion.
Has there ever been a more tantalizing potential package in college football history? A seemingly ready-made franchise quarterback and plug-in NFL head coach?
Twenty-three years ago, Vinny Testaverde was the top draft choice but the wooing hadn't quite started for his head coach: Jimmy Johnson bolted Miami for Dallas a year later. When Peyton Manning entered the NFL, no one was salivating for Phillip Fulmer to follow him. When Carson Palmer was the top pick in 2003, Pete Carroll was still remaking his reputation as a college coach. In 2010, Sam Bradford went No. 1 but the speculation surrounding Bob Stoops as an NFL coach was tepid, at best.
But Harbaugh and Luck sit on top (or almost at the top, save for one loss to Oregon) of the football world together. They both appear to be perfectly suited for the NFL. And neither has announced what their next move is.
Together, they adroitly shut down all questions about their future on Monday night, after dismantling Virginia Tech 40-12. Luck showed his 2011 Heisman form with his postgame stiff arm. Harbaugh -- who has a Palinesque ability not to answer a direct question -- barked, "Oh, please, give me a break," to the topic that was on everyone's mind.
Luck's merits are obvious: he is big, strong, fast, smart, with a rocket of an arm. He comes from an NFL pedigree: his father, Oliver, played for Houston. He is running a pro style offense. While there are few sure things among NFL draft picks, Luck looks to be the kind of player that can come into the quarterback-driven league and change a team's fortunes for the next generation.
And while many college coaches don't succeed at the NFL level, Harbaugh's resume is more complete than most. He is a former NFL quarterback himself, a 15-year veteran. He coached in the NFL with the Oakland Raiders. His brother John is a successful NFL coach. And as head coach at Stanford, Harbaugh has run a pro style offense, has a staff that he has culled from the NFL (more than half his assistants have NFL experience) and successfully sends his players to the NFL.
Luck is assumed to headed to the Carolina Panthers, which have the top draft choice, should he choose to come out of school.
Harbaugh's future is more open: the world is his oyster. While they are openly pining for him in Ann Arbor and San Francisco, more teams are rumored to be in play with every passing day. Dolphins' owner Stephen Ross (also a big Michigan donor) was on the field before Monday's game. John Elway, who is officially expected to join the Broncos front office this week, was visible on the Stanford sideline (in addition to wooing Harbaugh he could give Luck instructions on how a top draft pick can end up with the NFL team of his choice). Don't count out the Raiders: Al Davis gave Harbaugh his first job and they remain close.
Harbaugh probably made himself a few extra million dollars with Monday night's performance. While Stanford games were mostly available only for regional viewing or in the late hours of fall Saturday nights, Monday was a nationally televised, prime time unveiling. Some NFL owner, irritated about how his or her team's season went, might have pointed at the screen and demanded, "I want that."
Though it's unlikely they'll step into the NFL together unless Carolina has more ambition and available funds than anyone expects, in truth, Harbaugh and Luck are best as a package deal. Luck has been groomed by Harbaugh. And without Luck, Harbaugh's record at Stanford is just 9-16, including a loss in last season's Sun Bowl. With Luck, Stanford was 20-5.
They managed to delay the questions for a day. But Stanford's bus is scheduled to arrive back on campus at 4 p.m. pacific time today and the feeding frenzy --and bidding war -- will begin in earnest.
Because now, everyone can see what the big deal is. Football magic.