Here's what I know -- or at least what I've known to be true since I first started following Stanford Football in the autumn of 1987. Stanford University does not have trouble hiring excellent football coaches (the Two-Faced Denny Green, Bill Walsh, Tyrone Willingham, Jim Harbaugh), but there appears to be a problem keeping them (the Two-Faced Denny Green, Bill Walsh, Tyrone Willingham).
The argument goes that Stanford is a stepping stone. Aspiring young coaches are eager to take the job because of the high profile conference and the relatively low expectations at the school. Presumably, even moderate success in Palo Alto can be parlayed into greater prestige, a larger paycheck, and greener grass on the other side of the fence.
And so it is that as the Mighty Card get ready to play the final game in what could be their greatest ever season, the focus is not on Heisman finalist Andrew Luck or two-way starter Owen Marecic or the resurgent Stanford defense or even the miraculous turnaround from the 1-11 debacle of 2006. Instead the focus is on Jim Harbaugh and what most expect to be his imminent flight to the University of Michigan.
It's hard for me to be objective about all this, because I'm obviously biased. I love Stanford University, and I can't imagine why anyone would ever want to leave -- and I was BORN in Michigan.
But I have selfish reasons for wanting Harbaugh to stay. I got tremendous pleasure out of watching the Mighty Card on Saturdays and writing about them throughout the week. I believe that if Harbaugh were to stay, there would be other years like this and other players like Andrew Luck. I believe that people would stop being surprised to see the Cardinal ranked highly in national polls. Finally, I believe that people might stop expecting great coaches to leave.
There are, however, many good reasons for Harbaugh to move on. If it's to the NFL, he'll be giving himself the opportunity to compete at the highest level of his profession while being paid handsomely. If it's at the University of Michigan, he'll be walking in the footsteps of his idol, Bo Schembechler, and returning to the field where he once played quarterback.
Given those two different rationales, I suppose I couldn't really fault him for either of those choices. What I hope, though, is that Jim Harbaugh might use a different set of criteria when he sits down to make his final decision.
If his ego drives him to want to be known as the best, I hope he sees that the NFL does not offer such accolades to head coaches. The NFL is a tireless machine that devours good coaches and merely tolerates those who are great. Bill Bellicheck, for instance, is simply a technician; Tom Brady is the genius.
If he thinks about his legacy, I hope he knows that there is room for but one face on Ann Arbor's Mt. Rushmore. I've no doubt that he could rebuild the Wolverines into national championship contenders within three or four years, but he would only be returning them to the level the school's alumni expects. Lloyd Carr did that after Gary Moeller, and someone will do it after Rich Rodriguez. There is only one god at Michigan, and his name is Bo.
But if Harbaugh does what almost no one expects and actually signs that extension sitting on his desk, he would be taking a step towards greatness. Other coaches have shown that it is possible to win at Stanford, but if Harbaugh were to show that he could build a solid program that could consistently compete for championships, he would elevate himself above all other coaches in the college ranks. A statue would be erected in his honor upon his retirement, and his name would be whispered in awe by all those lucky enough to have seen his teams play.
The problem, of course, is that we don't know what's in Harbaugh's heart. We should find out in just a few days.