Congratulations are most certainly in order to the 49ers for landing the biggest fish in the coaching sea, but before Jed York calls his taxidermist to discuss mounting fees, he just might want to remember one thing: More often than not, trophies plucked from college football waters end up being thrown back.
In other words, University of Michigan fans, keep your chins up. Your future savior may be just three underwhelming 49ers seasons away.
Actually, it’s not my intention to rain on the ongoing San Francisco parade of good fortune (a World Series title AND Jim Harbaugh? The City must be living right!), but the history of college coaches making their first forays into the NFL says it will be a bit more difficult for Harbaugh to rebuild the Niners than it was to take Stanford from 1-11 to 12-1.
It’s impossible to pinpoint one single reason that college coaches have so frequently failed at the professional level, but the list continues to grow virtually every year. From Lou Holtz to Dennis Erickson to Steve Spurrier to Butch Davis to Nick Saban and so many more, college geniuses often become class clowns when they get to the next level.
Perhaps it’s the level playing field that limits the school boys when they get to the men’s game. At the collegiate level, big-time coaches can lure the best and brightest from America’s high schools and living rooms every year, with no limit on how many blue chip prospects they bring in, no matter how successful they were the year before.
In the NFL, however, they get to choose just 1 of the 32 top players each April, and if they had a good year the season before, they have to wait until 25 or 30 other teams choose before them.
Additionally, on college campuses coaches too often enjoy the luxury of university boosters offering, um, incentives for top recruits to sign on the dotted lines. In the NFL, every club has a booster — and a strict salary cap limiting just how much boosting they can do.
Even this year’s big “success” story — former USC coach Pete Carroll engineering Seattle’s wild-card upset of the defending champion New Orleans Saints — comes with an asterisk. Carroll actually had a losing record this season, and made the playoffs only by the grace of the sporting gods and the NFC West. In fact, counting his two previous tours of duty in the NFL, Carroll is just 40-40 as a professional coach with two firings under his belt.
You see, in the NFL, Carroll would have to spend a draft pick on a Reggie Bush or he’d have to trade quality players to get him. At USC, he had to simply turn his head while a booster bought Bush’s parents a house.
None of this, of course, means that Harbaugh will follow the playbook of other hot-shot college coaches and flame out in his first NFL opportunity. It simply means that Niners fans should proceed with cautious optimism.
Be excited, yes. After years of enduring Erickson, Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary, fans should be absolutely thrilled to have a young, talented, enthusiastic, brash, up-and-comer like Harbaugh at the helm. But let’s hold off on the “reincarnation of Bill Walsh” talk for a while. Let’s watch the man work first.
And Michigan fans, just be patient. Remember, Dolphins coach Nick Saban was never going back to college ball, either.
Bob Frantz is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The Examiner. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.