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Harbaugh to Texas? It’s Not So Crazy

The 49ers coach is downplaying rumors he’s a candidate for the Longhorns’ job, assuming it opens. But given his track record and the fact that he turned down a contract extension before the season began, it’s worth wondering whether the fiery former QB is getting restless in San Francisco

Here we go again.

For the second time in three years Jim Harbaugh is being linked to a job he doesn’t hold. In 2011, while coaching at Stanford, he was interviewed for NFL openings with the 49ers and Dolphins. He refused to discuss either situation at the time but wound up accepting a five-year, $25 million deal with San Francisco.

Now in the third season of an incredible run with the 49ers that includes 33 wins in 45 games, two trips to the NFC Championship Game and one Super Bowl appearance, Harbaugh is being mentioned as a candidate at the University of Texas—which doesn’t officially have a vacancy, though reports say Mack Brown will step down, possibly before the end of the week.

“I don’t ever talk about any job other than the one I have,” Harbaugh said on Wednesday.

Perhaps not, but there are reasons his name is being mentioned. Let’s outline a few:

• Ability

Harbaugh is a terrific coach who’s had success every place he has been, including on the collegiate level. He turned the programs at the University of San Diego and Stanford into national powers at their respective levels. The 49ers hadn’t had a winning season in eight years before he converted them into an NFL powerhouse.

John (right) got a nice bump from the Ravens after beating Jim in the Super Bowl. (John Biever/Sports Illustrated)

John (right) got a nice bump from the Ravens after beating Jim in the Super Bowl. (John Biever/Sports Illustrated)

•  Money

Harbaugh, who’s in the third year of that five-year deal, turned down a two-year extension before the start of the season. Why? Only he knows—and the next reporter he allows behind his mental curtain will be the first. But let’s take an educated guess.

Harbaugh has a firm belief in what his worth is, and at $5 million a year he’s a couple rungs beneath guys like Bill Belichick, Andy Reid and Chip Kelly on the financial ladder. Even his brother, Baltimore’s John Harbaugh, gets $7 million annually, after signing a four-year extension in September, following the Ravens’ Super Bowl win over Jim’s Niners.

The details of the extension that Jim turned down are unknown, but it’s likely the 49ers would want a Super Bowl win before moving a coach to the top salary echelon. Money wouldn’t be an issue at Texas, where a well-placed source confirmed that the university is willing to pay as much as $10 million a year for Nick Saban, the Alabama coach who has won three of the past four BCS titles.

The 49ers are likely going to try to revive extension talks after the season. “With three games left [in the regular season], now is not the time,” Niners CEO Jed York said of discussions on a new deal. “I fully expect to sit down at the end of the season and see where we go from here.”

•  Control

At the college level Harbaugh would have complete control over the program; in San Francisco the final authority rests with general manager Trent Baalke. The men haven’t always been on the same page, but their relationship has worked because they respect each other, and because Baalke has made a point of deferring to the coach in certain situations.

Anyone who has watched Harbaugh on the sideline or seen a GIF of his intense emotional outbursts can deduce that he’s tightly wound when it comes to football, and multiple people who’ve worked with him have told me privately over the years that he can be difficult. They didn’t say it was a bad experience, just that he can be difficult because he’s so intense. Which leads to another potential explanation …

•  Restlessness

Is Harbaugh ready to commit to a place long-term? He spent three years at the University of San Diego and four at Stanford. If he returns to the Niners next season it will match his coaching longest tenure in one place. Although cryptic and unforthcoming with the media, he’s very good at reading the landscape. Maybe it’s the quarterback in him; he played 15 seasons in the NFL.

As much as he pooh-poohed the Texas talk on Wednesday, I can’t help but to think back to his reaction last year when asked about reports (one by me) that the staff could have damaged QB Alex Smith’s confidence by taking the ball out of his hands late in a 13-7 win over Seattle, calling for rushes on 2nd-and-17 and 3rd-and-17 the series after Smith threw his fourth interception in eight quarters.

Harbaugh said the reports were “gobble, gobble, gobble turkey from jive turkey gobblers.” Smith, however, was benched for the season four games later, then traded to Kansas City in March. So regardless of how many times Harbaugh says or insinuates that he’s not interested in Texas, the link will remain until the Longhorns’ situation is resolved.