So, Jim Harbaugh is torn between the NFL and returning to his alma mater to become the savior of Michigan football, eh? That's what ESPN's Adam Schefter has reported...but only after he said that he does "not see that happening" in regard to Michigan, and "To me, the Oakland Raiders are the obvious landing spot."
The only thing that is obvious is that the definition of obvious changed pretty quickly.
Numerous pundits and fans have made a lot about the NFL being the ultimate destination. Once reached, it should be the sole focus of the coaches who make it. The ultimate goal is the Super Bowl, and if you are a successful coach who hasn't won the Super Bowl, you better stick around and get one (unless, of course, you're Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco...then GTFO for some reason). If you are successful and have won the Super Bowl, then keep on going because you're at the top and you better keep trying to get another one.
Is it possible for a college job to be every bit as prestigious as an NFL job? Can the pursuit of a national championship be every bit as difficult to attain as the Super Bowl. My opinion is "Yes". And this is just an opinion, but it's mine and I'm usually right...unless you ask my wife and kids...or the people who work for me...or the people for whom I work...or anyone I know. But they're all wrong; just ask me.
Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban are usually the two names that come to mind when one thinks about college coaches who failed on the professional level. Now that they've gotten back into the college ranks, is there any doubt as to their success? Spurrier's 83-45 record at South Carolina isn't as good as his 122-27-1 record while at Florida, but he hasn't had a losing season yet, and prior to this season he took the Gamecocks to three straight 11-win seasons and has been a contender on the national level.
As for Nick Saban...well, he's the devil and everyone knows what he has been able to accomplish with Alabama since leaving the Miami Dolphins. It's not just what he's been able to do, it's what he has the opportunity to do once again in 2014. I'm guessing that he doesn't look at himself as a failure.
Yes, college coaches have to worry about recruiting that never stops whereas NFL coaches do not. But, recruiting can also be one of the advantages. If you are able to turn your team over every three or four years, mold the players into what you need them to be, and get the most out of them before they become whatever it is they become in the NFL, then your impact is arguably much greater.
A college coach can average 9-10 wins per season and remain in his job for as long as he wants (see Bob Stoops, Frank Beamer, the late Joe Paterno). The consistent winning gives their team a shot every season and keeps them in the discussion. There may be aberrations thrown in here and there, but their overall success keeps them alive. If there's any question, just look at how consistent the SEC has been over the last decade.
College coaches are always going to have dreams of the NFL, but they should look at it as on par with a college gig, and moving back "down" isn't really a move down. It's not as though we're talking about an NFL head coach becoming the QB coach at Montana or something.
Now take a look at the money--if the college ranks are such a step down, why would Michigan reportedly offer Jim Harbaugh $49 million? Desperation? Perhaps on some level. Or perhaps it's just confidence that it's a great job and it's time to do what it takes to get the best guy. It was only a matter of time before a college coach was offered more money than anyone else, though, and Jim Harbaugh is certainly deserving of that distinction.
The only important thought on all of this, though, is whether the coach looks at the college position as a step down. It can be another incredible opportunity rather than an indictment of someone's career...especially when we're talking about a school in a Power 5 conference. And when we're discussing Michigan, well that also changes the equation. Now, without getting all arrogant about the program, it is the winningest program in college football. Although I've stated before that greatness is what you are, not what you were, history does count for something. It just shouldn't be the only thing. And even though the Michigan Man thing is supposed to take a back seat during this selection process, it certainly wouldn't be the first time that a man goes back to his alma mater to continue (or revive) a history of success. In this instance, the best coach for the job just happens to be a former Michigan player.
In the end Harbaugh needs to answer only to himself and to his family after he makes his decision. He doesn't need to answer to fans, bloggers, or ESPN beat writers. If Jim Harbaugh feels that Ann Arbor is the best fit, then it is the best fit.