CC: The Harbaugh Bracket

Submitted by Moonlight Graham on December 14th, 2014 at 5:06 PM

While we continue to play the waiting game these next few weeks — and in the spirit of today’s NFL scoreboard-watching and a ongoing analysis of the college “Football Four” — I had an idea. There have been endless speculation and rumors and so little clarity, and a myriad of possible head coach candidates multiplied exponentially by multiple coaching destinations for Candidate #1. Y’all know what we need, right? Of course, the device that always solves these types of multi-faceted challenges: Make a bracket.

Specifically, we’re going to create a “Harbaugh Four” semifinal bracket. 

Who’s In?

To borrow ESPN’s CoFoPo slogan, I believe we’ve seen the pool of possible destinations for Harbaugh get distilled down over the past few weeks, albeit via buzz, more buzz, and the Sportsbook odds ( The final four appear to be the following:

#1 Seed: San Francisco 49ers While everyone would agree that they are the least likely “winner” of this bracket given the alleged bad blood boiling in the organization, the seeding is based on the bigger picture. Harbaugh is, in fact, their CURRENT COACH RIGHT NOW, and he has had tremendous success over his entire three-plus-year tenure there, so we’ll base the 49ers’ seed on being the “incumbent.”

#2 Seed: Oakland Raiders Oakland makes it “in” based on buzz and those NFL “insider” reports we love to hate, plus the whole Bay-Area thing and the fact that the Raiders gave Harbaugh his first pro coaching opportunity.

#3 Seed: Miami Dophins Miami represents what Vegas has on the boards as “other NFL team.” While it seems unlikely that Stephen Ross in any way publicly stated that he’d like to hire Harbaugh (that would be tampering), the concept does seem plausible. A much as Ross loves Michigan, his more direct business interests are with the team he owns.

#4 Seed: University of Michigan We’re in! Vegas’ up-and-down odds currently have Michigan #1 but this seeding is based on U of M being two factors separated from Harbaugh’s current status: Not only would be be switching teams, but also switching entirely back to the college-game paradigm. 

Semifinal #1: San Francisco vs. Michigan

It’s Harbaugh’s friendship with former teammates and other UM alumni vs. the deteriorating relationships within the 49ers organization. It’s Schembechler vs. Walsh, former home vs. current home, pro vs. college. Some tough matchups, but if we are to believe that 49er management and ownership are ready to part ways with Harbaugh, with few tears shed by the players, then on this side of the bracket, Michigan wins and it’s not close. However if reality is not perception, and at the end of the season the Niners front office, the players and Harbaugh all come to some sort of meeting of the minds and decide that they have a good thing going, then the Niners will have justified their #1 seed — he simply stays put. 

All things considered, though, assuming ships have sailed in Santa Clara, we’ll give this one to Michigan.  

Semifinal #2: Oakland vs. Miami

The NFL season ends with both Miami and the 49ers missing the playoffs (and, of course, the Raiders too). The 49ers begin negotiations with Harbaugh and his agent regarding a trade. Several teams including the New York Jets express interest, but the Raiders and Dolphins rise to the top. This is where Jim Harbaugh is using Michigan as leverage: If he doesn’t like the destination where the 49ers want to trade him, he can simply tell them he’s going back to college. So the Raiders and Dolphins make the cut. Most (perhaps not all) other NFL suitors seem below the “Harbaugh-to-Michigan line” — if the 49ers attempted to trade him anywhere but the Raiders or Dolphins, he’d instead bolt to Michigan.  

So the Raiders bring a few positive elements for Harbaugh to consider: They’re of course Bay Area-based, but only for the time being it appears. The may, however, end up remaining in California, moving to L.A. They have some positive history with Harbaugh, having given him his first NFL coaching gig, and present a challenge for JH to sink his teeth into. An NFL insider report this morning notes that the Raiders are ready to change GM’s and spend more, and could offer Harbaugh a GM-Head Coach package.

But not so fast: The Raiders are not quite the destination the 49ers had in mind: They’re a regional rival, and would be motivated to bring an alternate team into the conversation — one that is ideally in the other conference. Enter: The Dolphins.

The Dolphins have been on the fringe of the playoff hunt all year, and they remain there this week. However as the end of the season nears, their chances continue to diminish. The conventional wisdom is that if the Fins make the playoffs, their owner Stephen Ross would be compelled to stick with current head coach Joe Philbin. However, a sketchy “report” today has Ross stating that he’d like to go after Harbaugh if Miami misses the playoffs. While the report seems fuzzy since this would be tampering on Ross’ part, the concept seems sound.

I don’t know enough about how the process of the 49ers and Harbaugh extricating themselves from their situation will work in terms of draft picks, and who has more “say” in where he would go. If Harbaugh has “veto power,” or if York and Baalke will call him into York’s office and tell him where he’s going. But I can see the Raiders finding a way to screw this up, and the Dolphins being motivated to sweeten the deal. Especially, say, if the division-rival Jets are also suitors.

This one’s a toss-up, but today I’d give it to the Dolphins. Like I said, this morning’s shady/fake/whatever report on Ross’ intentions was at least plausible, and I would give the edge in any such contest to Ross over Mark Davis, NFL negotiations or otherwise.

So it’s the Dolphins. 

Finals: University of Michigan vs. Miami Dolphins

In a stunning(?) upset, the top-seeded Bay Area contingent is shut out of the final, not-so-single-handedly by Stephen Ross (we figure Jim Hackett has a hand in there as well).  

So here’s what this matchup will come down to, and Brian strongly alludes to this in his freshly-posted SEARCHBITS XV: MACHINATIONS If Jim Harbaugh wants to remain in the NFL, he will have options. If Jim Harbaugh decides that the college game suits his style better, he’ll return there. The choice will come down to the best NFL option (I think the Dolphins) vs. the best college option (Michigan and only Michigan).

The Stephen Ross factor Ross is more than the elephant in the room, he IS the room. Ross has been heard saying that he would love to see Jim Harbaugh return to Michigan. As UM athletics’ biggest benefactor (by far), he could be playing a leadership role alongside Jim Hackett and former UM greats in convincing JH to return “home,” and may be able to play a financial role.  This was a few weeks ago, and made sense because Ross wouldn’t want to undermine his sitting head coach Joe Philbin. Fast forward to this week, and the “machinations” may be starting to move in a different direction, as the Dolphins are slipping out of the playoff picture.

So Ross plays a big role in this “contest,” but of course it all comes down to Mr. Harbaugh.

If Jim looks at the Oakland and Miami situations and feels that he a.) wants to continue to challenge himself in the NFL and b.) either of these franchises is the place to do it, he will likely work with the 49ers and either Allen or Ross to make that happen. If it’s the Dolphins, he will have made it clear to Mr. Ross that he prefers the NFL and Ross will rather see him coaching his NFL team than someone else’s, if Michigan isn’t in the cards.

Be it by direct statements by Ross and/or Harbaugh, or simply by implication, the Michigan fan base will have an understanding of “it’s not you, it’s me.” If Harbaugh considers himself an NFL lifer, this cannot be in any way considered a slap in the face. Many will take it as such, but it will be difficult to blame either of these men if Harbaugh wants to stay on the NFL path.

Elevator pitch time I’ve developed an “elevator” pitch for Jim Harbaugh, should I ever find myself (ha ha) crossing paths with him. In the vein of Apple CEO Steve Jobs courting Pepsi CEO John Scully with “do you want to sell sugar water, or do you want to change the world?” I would ask “do you want to be your brother, or do you want to be Bo?” Meaning, do you want to spend years trying to match your brother’s one Super Bowl ring, or do you want to win multiple Big Tens, go to a few Rose Bowls, and top Bo by winning a national championship?

I hope that’s the line of thinking, because I believe Harbaugh has his best chance of building his legend at a place where he’s already off to a gigantic head start. But I envision the endgame involving the Dolphins surfacing as the sweepstakes winner among NFL teams, and then things will probably centralize around a meeting between Ross, Hackett and Harbaugh, with the NFL vs. college decision crystallizing. You could say that Hackett and Michigan are the only ones who could lose in this situation. Harbaugh will do what he wants and get paid handsomely for it, and Ross wins either way.

Brian may not be bullish on Michigan’s prospects, but he’s certainly optimistic albeit cautiously so. Taking that plus today’s betting lines — and the fact that I along with everyone else on this board want it so badly — I’ll give the edge to Michigan. It “feels” like he’s leaning ever-so-slightly toward leaving the 49ers empty-handed and giving Ann Arbor every consideration.

So, this isn’t the NCAA Men’s Basketball bracket, so no running out of timeouts and no crappy calls on a last-minute shot block.

College football beckons. Legendary status awaits. Harbaugh returns. Michigan wins. 


Moonlight Graham

December 14th, 2014 at 5:52 PM ^

Thanks. Hence the #1 seed for them. Nobody's talking about it, but what if they work things out? Nobody needs to move anywhere. I'd love to be a fly on the wall at 49ers practices to see the coach-player dynamics. Wonder what Jim's telling them.

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Moonlight Graham

December 14th, 2014 at 7:45 PM ^

to another team going smoothly, regardless of the rules (which admittedly not all that familiar with either). It seems like Harbaugh, Baalke and York would need to continue "working with each other" to figure out "the best place for him" and that concept just doesn't seem to jive. What do the 49ers want to do? I wonder what's being discussed behind closed doors in that boardroom. 


December 14th, 2014 at 8:03 PM ^

Harbaugh knows that he's not wanted in his current job, and that he can pretty much write his own ticket in terms of the jobs that will be open this offseason.  Why would he agree to a trade in which he would go to a team that has to give up multiple high-value draft picks to get him, plus not necessarily have the choice of which team he would go to, when he could just wait for the 49ers to fire him and get to both pick the team, drive up the financial price, and inherit a team with (in Oakland's case) a top-5 draft pick?  

I don't see Harbaugh getting traded.  The Raiders are potentially dumb enough, but it would also require Harbaugh to a) want to go to Oakland, and b) be as dumb as the Raiders.   

Moonlight Graham

December 14th, 2014 at 8:50 PM ^

It doesn't sound like the 49ers would or should fire him. I suppose if they get into a stare-down where Harbaugh refuses to be traded to the "team of York's choosing" then York may have no choice, but I don't see it coming to that. 

Like I've said before, the whole process of trading Harbaugh is going to awkward and ugly. The Raiders desparately need draft picks, but the Dolphins could more easilly part with them. But in either case, Harbaugh could be facing a drawn-out soap opera to determine what NFL team lands him, whereas going to Michigan would be cut and dried, no more drama. 


December 15th, 2014 at 10:34 AM ^

I like the way you framed this appeal to Harbaugh, and hope if he's wavering b/w the NFL and Michigan and Hackett has to put on a little pressure to force a decision, he'll say something like this -- "Sugar water" vs. "change the world."

It really comes down to what's most important to Harbaugh. Does he want to be a "legend"? He's much more likely to achieve that at Michigan -- resurrecting his alma mater's football program back to dominant status, vanquishing Dantonio and Urban Meyer, winning Big Ten titles and Rose Bowls and maybe a NC. That's a great story.

Or, does he want to be recognized as a "great coach"? i.e., rather than being Bo 2.0, would he rather be Bill Walsh 2.0 -- someone who won at Stanford and then won multiple Super Bowls, and is recognized in the conversation about greatest football minds at the highest (i.e., professional) level?  You can be a great, great college coach, e.g. Nick Saban, yet I'm sure there will always be people in the NFL who sniff at Saban's collegiate success rebuilding Bama b/c he didn't succeed in the NFL. How much would that bother Harbaugh, an ultra-competitive guy?

Here's hoping the chance to make a difference in young men's lives and restore a proud football tradition in Ann Arbor appeals more to Jim than the chance for a couple Lombardi trophies...

Moonlight Graham

December 15th, 2014 at 2:45 PM ^

and how you expanded on it. One thing's for sure, he won't ever be the next Bill Walsh, at least not in the pros, which is what I he may have had designs on. So now what ... the next Tom Flores? Is the community of MIAMI where he wants to continue building his legend? I don't look at Jim Harbaugh and think "taking my talents to South Beach."


December 15th, 2014 at 11:55 AM ^

to consider in the Harbaugh sweepstakes. He either wants to stay in the NFL or he'll come back to Michigan. That's his biggest choice and the decision that separates his future wherever his pro coaching career might take him.

I mean, seriously, everything else is working out the details. Until he decides which coaching direction he wants to take, the announcement is simply like getting one on signing day from a highly sought-after recruit. Because the actual announcment will likely come the day after the NFL season ends.

Michgan has its signing opportunity now and must force an answer from Harbaugh by next week so it can conclude its search process before New Years Day.

The 49ers have put themselves in a no-win situation with Harbaugh because of all of their posturing over his future going forward. As a result, Harbaugh holds all the cards with respect to his future and where he wants to pursue it.

For Michigan fans, if it's a yes, it's  a decision that will hang in abeyance until a mutually beneficiai time for the announcement. If it's no, then Michigan will begin to move in other directions which will be shadowed and show that Harbaugh has opted to remain in the NFL at which point the guessing game over his next team will continue in earnest.

Then, the bracket battle seems more relevant.


December 15th, 2014 at 1:30 PM ^

I'd put the Niners as the 4 seed or not in the playoff at all. He's gone.  

If he's traded to the Raiders for draft picks, he would be lacking what the Raiders need most, draft picks. It's not like trading players, JH has a say in where he goes. 

The Dolphins make sense. 

Michigan makes sense.

It boils down to college vs pro's.