January 3rd, 2011 at 9:42 PM ^

I figured I'd repost for those without subscription. Sorry to take up space.

Tom Shanahan Senior Writer

Talk about it in The Mesa

San Diego State fans can relax. The only game Aztecs head coach Brady Hoke will coach at Michigan next year is Sept. 24 when SDSU visits the Big House.

And the Michigan coach that Hoke will face is Jim Harbaugh. Michigan sources say this will all play out shortly. ESPN's Adam Schefter also has been reporting Harbaugh is passing on NFL opportunities to coach at Michigan, where he played under the legendary Bo Schembechler.

For this scenario not to play out, it will take an unlikely drastic change of heart on Harbaugh's part. I would expect Brandon to have Harbaugh excommunicated as a Michigan alum if he backs out at this late date.

Michigan athletic director David Brandon, who also played for Schembechler, has been operating under the premise that he would evaluate third-year head coach Rich Rodriguez after the Gator Bowl. In reality, Rodriguez, who was hired before Brandon took over last year, has been a dead coach walking for weeks.

Brandon has been waiting for Harbaugh and Stanford to play the Orange Bowl game Monday night against Virginia Tech. This strategy conviently allowed Brandon to avoid firing Rodriguez after the Ohio State loss over a month ago.

Making a move anytime in the last month would have put Harbaugh in the position of leaving Stanford before the Orange Bowl and forcing Brandon to answer questions about what's taking him so long to name a new coach.

Rodriguez's buyout, of course, also was a factor. After Jan. 1, Michigan's buyout of Rodriguez went down from $4 million to $2.5 million.

But Brandon is too smart to not have a head coach lined up and risk putting himself in position of looking for a new head coach in January. Brandon isn't a fool. He was the steely-eyed CEO that turned around Domino's Pizza before he took over as CEO of Michigan's athletic department last year.

He in no way fits the stereotype of an ex-jock blundering his way through a a major decision.

Michigan sources say Brandon learned from Harbaugh through backchannels weeks ago that Harbaugh wanted the Michigan job. At about the same time, Hoke agreed to sign a contract extension with San Diego State.

Coincidence? It's not likely.

Hoke's mentor at Michigan was former head coach Lloyd Carr. Brandon and Carr are close. Brandon and his wife and Carr and his wife were the heads of a $754 fundraising project for the U-M C.S. Mott Children's Hospital.

You connect the dots.

Normally, of course, I wouldn't spend so much time on a Michigan story. Except this Michigan story has ramifications for San Diego State's future.

Hoke will likely end up Michigan's coach -- maybe as early as two or three years from now if Harbaugh decides then is the right time to leave for the NFL.

When that time comes, Hoke has Carr in his corner. He also has Brandon's respect. Brandon's term on Michigan's Board of Regents started in 1998 and overlapped with Hoke's time as a Michigan assistant.

Brandon and Harbaugh are Michigan Men, to paraphrase Schembechler, and Brandon considers Hoke a Michigan Man, too.

Hoke was an assistant for eight years under Carr, but that doesn't tell the full story. He was Carr's associate head coach in 2002, the season before he left in 2003 as Ball State's head coach.

For these reasons, Brandon considered Hoke his compromise choice if he met too much resistance from Michigan boosters over hiring Harbaugh, who comes with some baggage. Harbaugh, even on his good days, can be abrasive.

In 2007, he told the San Jose Mercury, "Michigan is a good school, and I got a good education there, but the athletic department has ways to get borderline guys in, and, when they're in, the steer them to courses in sports communications."

That didn' go over well in Michigan.

But Harbaugh is Brandon's first choice because he needs to make a splash with his new head coach. Harbaugh creates that splash with name recognition that will sell suites at newly expanded Michigan Stadium in a state suffering through an economic recession.

Hoke has proven himself to be a football coach that can turn around programs with less resources than he'll have in Ann Arbor. He even has the nationally televised endorsement of ESPN's Craig James during the broadcast of San Diego State's win over Navy.

But name recognition weighs more heavily in this case. In additon to the suites to fill, Michigan Stadium has been expanded to 113,000 seats. It may sound sacriligious to think Michigan can't sellout games, but it should be noted Michigan didn't sell out its ticket allotment to the Gator Bowl.

That ticket slump could be blamed on a third straight disappointing season under Rodriguez and the Gator Bowl lacking prestige, but Michigan fans usually don't pass up on a trip to Florida in the winter unless something is amiss with the program.

The only surprise about this scenario playing out is Harbaugh has decided to pass on NFL opportunities. It's long been known Harbaugh aspires to be an NFL head coach. When he coached at the University of San Diego from 2004 to 2006, even his players talked about how Harbaugh's goal was to become an NFL head coach.

But Harbaugh apparently is waiting for the right situation. He must not see this as the right time. NFL owners and players are expected to engage in a labor struggle that could result in an owners lockout or a players strike.

If Harbaugh wanted to be an NFL head coach next year, he could seek the Carolina job and tell the Panthers he's bringing Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck with him since the Panthers hold the No. 1 overall draft pick.

If he wanted to stay in the Bay Area, he could seek the San Francisco 49ers job.

Both of those jobs have been expected to be open for weeks. If Harbaugh had his eyes set on those positions, a rumor would have leaked out by now -- similar to the way rumors have leaked out about Brandon already having Harbaugh lined up.

Another example that Harbaugh is waiting for the right NFL job -- not just any NFL job -- was his decision to leave the Oakland Raiders as their quarterbacks coach in 2002 and 2003 to become the head coach of the USD's non-scholarship program in 2004.

I sat down with Harbaugh for an interivew before the 2004 season, and he told me Raiders owner Al Davis said he wanted him to stay so he could groom him to be his future head coach.

But Harbaugh told Davis he wanted to get experience as a head coach and he was following a similar path that Davis took as a college assistant coach at USC before moving on to pro football with the Chargers.

"He told me, 'Yeah, but I coached at USC, not USD,' Harbaugh said with a laugh.

If Harbaugh had stayed on the Raiders' staff, you think Davis would have hired Lane Kiffin (2007) or Tom Cable (2008) over Harbaugh? Harbaugh's smart enough to know he was next in line at Oakland, so it must not be a job he wanted.

By the time Harbaugh feels comfortable moving from Michigan to the NFL, Hoke will have the profile that will satisfy Michigan fans and make him an easy hire for Brandon. He will have won a lot of games at San Diego State by then.

Minnesota flirting with Hoke has already helped raised his profile. I told Minnesota reporters that called me for information that I didn't believe the rumors and Hoke wouldn't leave San Diego State after two years for Minnesota. Probably the only place he would leave SDSU for after only two years is Michigan.

If Hoke does eventually end up at Michigan, when SDSU searches for his replacement the Aztecs will no longer be considered a sleeping giant that needs the right man to turn things around.

By then, San Diego State will be a job that attracts a stronger cast of candidates than it ever has in the past.

And if Hoke leaves it will be the first time someone on the SDSU staff will be considered a candidate to succeed the departed head coach.