Posted: Sunday January 2, 2011 9:13PM ; Updated: Monday January 3, 2011 2:13PM
Stewart Mandel

Jim Harbaugh's future hanging over Orange Bowl, all of football

Story Highlights

Orange Bowl is enticing matchup, but all anyone wants to talk about is Harbaugh

An 0-fer in New Year's Day bowls was a definite blow for the Big Ten's image

Maryland and Florida made puzzling coaching moves; will Pittsburgh be next?

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Jim Harbaugh has become the hottest coaching candidate at the NFL and college levels by transforming Stanford from a 1-11 pushover to an 11-1 power.
Jim Harbaugh has become the hottest coaching candidate at the NFL and college levels by transforming Stanford from a 1-11 pushover to an 11-1 power.

Basketball fans remember well the 2003 Syracuse-Kansas NCAA final, not just for Carmelo Anthony's heroics, but also for the infamous postgame interview in which forlorn Jayhawks coach Roy Williams told CBS' Bonnie Bernstein: "I could give a s--- about North Carolina right now." Days later, of course, Williams became the coach at UNC.

Late Monday night, ESPN's Michelle Tafoya may have the unenviable task of conducting a similarly awkward interview with Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh following Stanford's game against Virginia Tech. While the Orange Bowl should be a fun on-field matchup, much of the sport cares less about the result than about the possible aftermath. Simply put, Harbaugh -- who's taken the Cardinal from 1-11 to 11-1 -- is the most sought-after coach in football today, in both the college and professional ranks. And his immediate future could impact the long-term direction of several prominent teams and franchises.

It starts first and foremost with the former quarterback's alma mater, Michigan, which hadn't officially announced anything as of this writing but which will almost certainly be parting ways with embattled coach Rich Rodriguez after three largely disastrous seasons. There was some thought Rodriguez could earn a reprieve with a Gator Bowl win over Mississippi State, but a humiliating 52-14 defeat likely sealed his fate.

Michigan AD Dave Brandon has been conspicuous in his silence, leaving Rodriguez hanging in the wind. "You're asking the wrong guy," Rodriguez said after Saturday's game when asked whether he thought he'd be back next season.

The most obvious explanation for why Brandon hasn't pulled the plug is that he's waiting until after the Orange Bowl in order to spare presumed top target Harbaugh from a potential firestorm. As long as the Michigan job remains filled, media members can't yet ask the direct Bernstein/Williams-type question.

The closest anyone came at Sunday's pregame press conference in Miami was: "Does it bother you that your name is being brought up so much for other coaching jobs even though you've really given no indication that you want to leave Stanford?" The problem is, Harbaugh also hasn't given a firm indication that he's staying. Sunday he provided his stock response: "I just talk about the job that I have and none others."

There was one notable and unusual questioner in the audience: a reporter from Charlotte who asked Harbaugh to reminisce about his final season as an NFL quarterback in 2001 with the Carolina Panthers. Why would a reporter from Charlotte be covering the Orange Bowl? Because the Panthers are currently in the market for a new coach and also happen to own the No. 1 pick in next spring's draft -- a pick that could potentially be used to take Harbaugh's quarterback, Andrew Luck.

But the Panthers are hardly Harbaugh's only interested NFL suitor. The San Francisco 49ers, whom Harbaugh could coach without having to relocate from his present residence, are also on the market and reportedly very interested. As SI's Peter King tweeted Saturday: "One coach told me the other day: 'This could turn into the Jim Harbaugh Derby.' Just watch. It's going to play out over the next few days."

Orange Bowl preview
Source: SI
Can Virginia Tech slow Andrew Luck and Stanford? analysts Stewart Mandel and George Schroeder break down the matchup.

For college fans, the potential dominoes will depend first and foremost on whether Harbaugh decides he's a Michigan Man or an NFL man. If he's the former, the biggest questions become who will succeeded him at Stanford, how will the move affect Luck's NFL decision and what the heck will the vintage smashmouth coach do with all those spread-offense recruits Rodriguez spent three years assembling? Would the Big Ten's Offensive Player of the Year, quarterback Denard Robinson, be moved to slot receiver? Would he move himself to another school entirely? (Ironically, Rodriguez's hiring three years ago cost the Wolverines current All-SEC quarterback Ryan Mallett.)

If however Harbaugh goes to the pros, or if we've all misread the situation entirely, Michigan could cause a different ripple effect. It could be 2007 all over again, with LSU coach Les Miles awaiting a call to come home to his alma mater. While it seems like Bayou Bengals fans finally came to embrace their eccentric but successful coach over the course of this season, Miles knows in the SEC he'll always be one 7-5 season away from getting the boot. Michigan is his admitted dream job, and he'd take it in a nanosecond, suddenly opening up a top 10 program in the nation's most high-profile conference.

But who knows whether Michigan wants Miles as much as Miles wants Michigan. The other name being tossed about is San Diego State's Brady Hoke, a former Lloyd Carr assistant and suddenly hot commodity who turned down overtures from Minnesota. But there's a significant faction of Michigan fans who'd rather keep Rodriguez than take a chance on a mid-major coach with a career 47-50 mark.

It may well be Harbaugh or bust for the Wolverines.

The biggest upset of all will be if, after all the hoopla, Harbaugh winds up staying at Stanford. Stranger things have happened this coaching carousel. (Like a coach getting himself fired 16 days into his employment.)

But that probably makes too much sense. The great Harbaugh Derby could play out any number of ways, but whatever the result, it's sure to be clunky -- starting with that interview on the field Monday night.
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