In 1991 the Stanford football team enjoyed one of its finest seasons in quite some time, finishing the regular season at 8-3 before losing in the Aloha Bowl on Christmas Day. As exciting as it was, some of the expected joy was diminished due to constant speculation about the future of the head coach. No one, it seemed, could imagine that a young, successful coach would want to remain at Stanford to build a consistent program since the NFL would offer more money and greater prestige. But our head coach repeatedly put our fears to rest, declaring several times that he wasn't interested in any other job -- until he left a few weeks after the season to become the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings. I was young at the time, only a year removed from campus, so I took this very personally and vowed to refer to him from that moment on as the Two-Faced Denny Green.
Strictly from a fan's point of view, the sudden departure of a successful head coach can be difficult. Even though there were lots of signs (most of them dollar signs) pointing towards this eventual outcome, the seventy-two hour emotional roller coaster ride that preceded Harbaugh's signing with the 49ers was unbelievably gut-wrenching.
But there were clues dropped in answers to other questions that troubled me. He kept referring to the win as a "championship," even though it clearly wasn't. He talked about his players as "champions," even though they had finished second in the Pac-10. It sounded to me as if he was trying to convince people -- and maybe even convince himself -- that he had fulfilled one of his stated goals upon taking the job four years ago, his promise to win a championship. During that press conference I knew he was leaving.
But then something strange happened. As the offers were pouring in and rumor-mongers were already installing him in places like Ann Arbor, Denver, San Francisco, and Miami, there was a glimmer of hope. Different voices were telling us that Harbaugh was having a hard time walking away from Stanford, and we were hearing that the contract offer already on the table was being sweetened. When the Miami Dolphins dropped out of the picture, it looked like maybe -- maybe -- he might stay. Only forty-eight hours earlier it had looked like Stanford football would be entering the 2011 season without either Luck or Harbaugh, but after Luck announced his decision to stay on Thursday afternoon, there were moments Thursday evening when people believed they'd both be returning. Instead of worrying about a need to rebuild the program, I was thinking about a national championship run.
When news broke on Friday of Harbaugh's decision to leave for the 49ers, I was disappointed but not surprised. Afterall, this was what I had been worrying about for months. Here's what I wrote about the 49er job back on October 27:
This, I think, is the biggest threat. Even though things have been rough recently, the 49ers are still seen as one of the NFL's marquee teams, and I bet Harbaugh would love to be the guy that returns the franchise to glory. What's worse is that the 49er practice facility and offices are just 11.6 miles from Palo Alto, meaning that the Harbaugh family wouldn't even have to move...
I was angry when the Two-Faced Denny Green abandoned ship, but somehow it's different with Jim Harbaugh. Maybe it's only because I'm 41 and not 22, or maybe it's because I've had several months to get used to the idea, but I feel no animosity towards Harbaugh. He changed the culture of Stanford Football, dramatically improved the level of talent in the program, and convinced the nation -- heck, he even convinced me -- that Stanford University could field a top-flight football team.
If you hire a coach ambitious enough to believe that he can take over a 1-11 disaster and win a championship, this is the risk that you take. Stanford's next coach won't be in that same position. He won't have to imagine what might be possible for Stanford football, because he will already see it, and that just might keep him here longer than four years. Maybe, just maybe, the Stanford head coaching position has become a destination rather than a stepping stone. We have Jim Harbaugh to thank for that.
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