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Chasing Jim Harbaugh: Is It A Race Between Michigan And The San Francisco 49ers?

The San Francisco 49ers are reportedly interested in Jim Harbaugh, and the feeling may be mutual. What does Michigan have to compete with if athletic director Dave Brandon wants Harbaugh as his next football coach?

If you watched halftime of Tuesday night's Eagles-Vikings game, you saw Sports Illustrated's Peter King mention that the San Francisco 49ers are interested in Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh. And the feeling is presumably mutual.

That's not a surprise, if you've been paying attention to the speculation that Harbaugh's ultimate goal is to coach in the NFL. Now that there's an opening in San Francisco, he could move up to the pro level without having to leave the Bay Area (as Bill Walsh did in the late '70s). Several sources have reported that the 49ers are going to promote VP of Player Personnel Trent Baalke to general manager, and that he might be a package deal with Harbaugh.

If you're a Michigan football fan hoping Harbaugh takes over for Rich Rodriguez shortly after the bowl season ends, those rumblings probably make you seize up with anxiety.

But linking Baalke and Harbaugh is merely conjecture, along the same lines of supposing that Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon has sent out feelers to the former Wolverines quarterback.

All of this speculation also overlooks the fact that Stanford surely wants to keep Harbaugh. But maybe there's good reason for that. Remember when Stanford AD Bob Bowlsby announced he was going to sweeten his coach's contract and said he expected Harbaugh to accept the new deal? Bowlsby was obviously trying to circle the wagons and possibly scare off potential suitors. But he also may have been a bit hasty with his declaration.

From the San Jose Mercury News' Jon Wilner:

Not only has he not signed it, "I haven’t even discussed it," [Harbaugh] told me today.

That comment would seem to contradict what athletic director Bob Bowlsby said three weeks ago — that "Jim has indicated he plans to accept it."

When I relayed Bowlsby’s comment to Harbaugh, he said: "Maybe he misspoke."

That's quite a different story from the one Bowlsby was telling. Of course, it's in Harbaugh's best interests to make sure other schools and NFL teams know that he hasn't accepted anything. Nothing is official until a contract is signed.

Wilner goes on to explain what exactly Stanford's sweetened deal includes, based on what he's heard from sources.

[...] sources close to the university’s powerbrokers have told me it’s worth approximately $3 million per year and includes substantial amounts of deferred compensation and housing assistance.

It would make Harbaugh the second-highest paid coach in the conference (behind USC’s Lane Kiffin) and is an astounding figure for Stanford, which has never been inclined top pay top dollar in the past.

So if you were wondering what it might take for Michigan to pry Harbaugh away from Stanford and hold off the NFL, other than appealing to nostalgia and old ties, the bidding might start at $3 million. That's more than Michigan pays Rodriguez ($2.5 million per year) under his current contract.

But the administration has to figure they'd have to pay Harbaugh more, especially with the competition for his services. (The average head coaching salary in the NFL, by the way, is $3.25 million, though a first-timer like Harbaugh might initially earn less.)

Staying at Stanford likely isn't an option for Harbaugh. He may never be hotter as a coaching candidate than he is right now. Bowlsby's offer of a raise from $1.25 million to $3 million doesn't appear to have impressed him, judging from the remarks above. (Some also believe that Harbaugh is frustrated by attendance at Stanford football games, in which 10,000 seats are typically empty.)

However, if you're a Michigan fan who thought the football program was entitled to Harbaugh as its next head coach, it's clearly not going to be that easy. Michigan might very well hold a special place in Harbaugh's heart. And the chance to return to Ann Arbor and restore the Bo Schembechler tradition surely has great appeal. But it doesn't mean Harbaugh sees Michigan as the best job for him.

That's where Brandon comes in. We have no idea what he's prepared to offer Harbaugh, if he does indeed want him to replace Rodriguez as head coach. (And if he doesn't, why bother waiting until after the Gator Bowl to say so?) Perhaps he wants to see what the market is for Harbaugh first, so Michigan's deal would look competitive.

If the 49ers or another NFL team exceed what Brandon was prepared to offer, he can quietly back away without suffering the embarrassment of Harbaugh possibly turning his alma mater down. If Harbaugh doesn't like what he sees from the NFL, Brandon can swoop in as the conquering hero. Hail, hail.

Waiting it out and letting someone else woo Harbaugh first would obviously be a risk. But at this point, that might be the smartest move.