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SportsMonday Column: Don't assume that Jim Harbaugh is Michigan-bound just yet

Paul Sakuma/AP
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BY RYAN KARTJE
Managing Sports Editor
Published November 28, 2010

The Ancient Greeks believed that the Earth was located at the center of the universe and all other objects orbited around it.

It made sense at the time, and two of Greece’s greatest philosophers, Aristotle and Ptolemy, embraced the geocentric model wholeheartedly.

But, as you know, that wasn’t the case. It wasn’t until the 16th century when Copernicus published his heliocentric model that anyone thought the sun was the center of the universe.

This weekend, I saw a similar gaffe happening in the minds of Michigan fans across the country. With Rich Rodriguez’s job in absolute jeopardy, they turned their attention to a certain former Michigan quarterback and current Stanford head coach. And in pre-Copernican fashion, many Wolverine fans have decided Jim Harbaugh will be next in line to walk the sidelines of Michigan Stadium.

Heck, he might as well have been named Michigan’s head coach on Sunday.

The fact of the matter is, he wasn't and won't be right away. Yes, there’s a chance that he does coach the Wolverines next season. But what many Michigan fans don’t understand — and this is where Ancient Greece comes in — is that the University of Michigan might not be the best option for Harbaugh. Maybe, for Harbaugh, the football world doesn’t revolve around Michigan, like many fans and alumni think it does.

There’s no doubt that the Wolverines have to be toward the top of Harbaugh’s list and he’s definitely on top of theirs. But is Michigan at the very top?

With how well Harbaugh has done in Palo Alto, there may not even be reason for him to leave the sunny beaches of California. He has a pretty good thing going with the Cardinal, taking them from a 4-8 team in his first season to an 11-1 record and top-five ranking this season. He also recruited and built up quarterback Andrew Luck, who will most likely be the No. 1 player drafted in April’s NFL Draft.

But fans at Stanford don’t quite appreciate Harbaugh’s success. In one of the Cardinal’s most recent home games, the stands were just two-thirds full. That’s not so typical of a program that will likely play in a BCS bowl come January. And it’s something that doesn’t sit well with Harbaugh or any of Stanford’s former coaches.

“On most campuses with football, when you wake up on Saturday morning and look around, you can tell something is going to happen, even if you're not sure what it is,” a former Stanford coach told the San Jose Mercury News. “Not here."

So sure, he’ll probably leave Palo Alto. And he would never have to deal with attendance problems at Michigan Stadium — the Wolverines haven’t seen a crowd of less than 100,000 since October 25, 1975.

But maybe attendance isn’t the issue. Maybe he’d prefer to follow the steps of a certain Stanford football coach who made it pretty well at the next level — with the San Francisco 49ers.

After being named Pac-8 Coach of the Year in 1977, legendary coach Bill Walsh left the Cardinal for the 49ers. Three Super Bowls later, I’m guessing he doesn’t regret his decision to jump to the NFL.

And Harbaugh could do the same without a blink of an eye.

The 49ers job will likely be open, just as the Michigan job will likely be open. And you better believe that San Francisco will make a push for Harbaugh.

John Harbaugh, Jim’s brother, could also be in his ear when it comes to coaching at the next level. John currently coaches the Baltimore Ravens, and the two are known to have a very close relationship — one that could blossom for all to see on the NFL landscape.

That’s not to take away from the pageantry and great opportunity Harbaugh has in Ann Arbor, a campus where he will be revered and exalted as the savior of Michigan football. To experience that feeling from your own alma mater would be a pretty good selling point for anyone.

It’s also widely known that Athletic Director Dave Brandon would prefer to avoid a tedious coaching search, if/when Rodriguez is no longer Michigan’s coach. After all, the last coaching search at Michigan was one of the most embarrassing fiascos of former athletic director Bill Martin’s career.

But if there’s anything we can learn from Martin’s mistakes, it’s that Michigan is not the center of the college football universe.

And the Wolverine faithful can’t handle losing Harbaugh like they lost Les Miles — another “sure thing” — after Lloyd Carr retired following the 2007 season.

So temper your expectations about Harbaugh and remember that the University of Michigan isn’t the end-all-be-all of coaching positions. Maybe he comes to Ann Arbor and turns the whole program around. Maybe he goes to the NFL and wins a Super Bowl. Maybe Rich Rodriguez comes back next year.

The point is we don’t know. And if Brandon waits until the bowl game to decide on Rodriguez’s future, we may never know what would have been. Harbaugh could move 33 miles down the road to San Francisco by then.

-Kartje received a “Jimmy’s Coming Home” t-shirt while writing this column. He can be reached at rkartje@umich.edu