Harbaugh hired as coach of 49ers

Posted Jan. 07, 2011, at 9:25 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 07, 2011, at 11:33 p.m.

SAN FRANCISCO — All week, Jim Harbaugh had a good feeling about making the jump to the NFL and joining the San Francisco 49ers — just the way mentor and late Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh did more than 30 years ago.

Declaring it a “perfect competitive opportunity,” Harbaugh accepted the job as coach of the 49ers on Friday and said his goal is to win a Lombardi Trophy for “one of the legendary franchises in all of football.”

The successful Stanford coach receives a five-year deal and gets to remain right at home in the Bay Area, moving to the NFL after four years with the Cardinal. A longtime NFL quarterback, he replaces fired coach Mike Singletary. ESPN reported Harbaugh’s deal is for $25 million.

Harbaugh decided to leave Stanford for the pros even though San Francisco has missed the playoffs for eight straight seasons and Orange Bowl MVP quarterback Andrew Luck announced Thursday he would remain at Stanford for another season.

“I can feel the enthusiasm coursing through my veins right now,” said Harbaugh, who was going to team headquarters Friday night to get to work. “I accept this competitive challenge willingly.”

The 49ers pulled out all the stops to introduce him. The swanky Palace Hotel in downtown San Francisco rolled out a special red carpet for Harbaugh’s arrival, and he showed up in a limousine for a news conference that began with a music video featuring team highlights.

The Cardinal (12-1) finished with a school-record 12 wins following a 40-12 victory over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl on Monday night. It’s been a whirlwind week to say the least.

Harbaugh has long admired Walsh and how he made the successful leap from Stanford to the 49ers. Harbaugh knew the man nicknamed “The Genius” for 18 years and once received footwork tips from the coach while playing for the Bears. “Everything that came out of his mind, his heart, his mouth, I hung on every single word.”

Walsh thought up the original schemes that became known as the West Coast offense, which Harbaugh plans to run with the 49ers. Harbaugh has a picture of Walsh he looks at each day taped to his computer screen, but says it will be a while before any comparisons can be made of the two.

While Harbaugh said he had all but made up his mind to accept the 49ers’ offer following a meeting of more than six hours that went into Wednesday evening, he took a couple of days to hear out his other suitors and do his “homework” — and “do some soul searching” as new 49ers general manager Trent Baalke put it.

“I knew in my heart and my gut the right decision was with the San Francisco 49ers,” he said.

After quite a run at Stanford, Harbaugh will head some 10 miles along the 101 freeway from Stanford to turn around a once-proud franchise that is desperate to become a contender again right away. The 49ers were expected to win the NFC West this season, then began 0-5 for their worst start since losing seven straight to begin a 2-14 season in 1979, Walsh’s first year as coach.

The 49ers finished 6-10 this year — in the chase for a playoff berth in the NFL’s worst division until the second-to-last week — and haven’t had a winning season since their last trip to the playoffs in 2002.

“I met this man six or seven years ago at a college All-Star game and I fell in love with his energy,” Baalke said. “This is the start of a new generation. … What we have to do is bring back the culture of winning. He’s a guy who can lead the 49ers franchise back to where it rightfully belongs.”

Harbaugh likely will be grooming a new quarterback in the coming months. Alex Smith, the 2005 No. 1 overall draft pick out of Utah, becomes a free agent. So, finding a QB is high on the team’s to-do list heading into what should be a busy offseason.

Once the season begins, Harbaugh will face a familiar foe — big brother John Harbaugh, coach of the Baltimore Ravens. Jim Harbaugh won’t be attending his brother’s playoff game in Kansas City this weekend after all.

“Let me tell you guys out in San Francisco, you got a great one,” John Harbaugh said. “I’m very happy he’s not in the AFC. We’ll see him once every four years and Super Bowls — hopefully we could get a couple of those. … I got a feeling you’ll see two pretty similarly built football teams.”

Niners team president and CEO Jed York said when Singletary was fired that money would be no object in finding the team’s next coach. He promoted vice president of player personnel Baalke to GM earlier this week, then they worked together to make their push for Harbaugh, who also was in talks with the Miami Dolphins and Stanford.

The 49ers didn’t put him on a deadline, telling Harbaugh, “There can’t be any doubt in your mind,” York said. Harbaugh asked for Thursday night to “sleep on it,” then signed his deal Friday. He also informed Luck and his players at Stanford.

Harbaugh insists this move wasn’t all about money. He reportedly had an offer for more from Miami.

“It wasn’t the factor. I like a buck just like the next guy, but I love coaching and I love winning and I love football,” he said. “The factor that dictated my being here was that Trent and Jed and the 49er organization wanted me to be here and I wanted to be here as much or more than they wanted me. Here I am.”

The 47-year-old Harbaugh went 58-27 overall as a college coach and 29-21 in four seasons at Stanford. He took over a 1-11 team when he was hired in December 2006 and quickly turned the program back into a winner and bowl contender.

The Cardinal went 4-8 in his first season, 5-7 the next, then improved to 8-5 and earned a Sun Bowl berth in 2009 — the school’s first bowl appearance since 2001.

His next challenge will be getting San Francisco back to the playoffs.

“It’s the process of building a team, being part of a team and leading a team, and working at it,” Harbaugh said. “It’s committing a lot of energy to it. There are definitely similarities.”

When Stanford arrived back on campus Tuesday, one man hollered “Stay in the Bay Area!” when Harbaugh hopped off the bus carrying his 2-year-old daughter, Addison. He also has a newborn baby girl. Not having to move his family across the country was an added bonus.

Harbaugh was the Oakland Raiders’ quarterbacks coach from 2002-03 before spending three seasons as head coach at the University of San Diego. He said he recently spoke to Raiders owner Al Davis, but not specifically about the now-vacant Oakland coaching job.

Harbaugh, a college star at Michigan where there also is a coaching vacancy after the firing of Rich Rodriguez, played 15 seasons in the NFL for the Bears, Colts, Ravens, Chargers and Panthers. A first-round draft pick taken 26th overall by Chicago in 1987, Harbaugh completed 2,305 of 3,918 passes for 26,288 career yards and 129 touchdowns in the NFL. He also ran for 18 TDs.

For York and the front office, landing Harbaugh was the first goal.

“This is a very happy day but our work didn’t end today,” York said. “It just begins today.”

“Losing is not an option,” Harbaugh said.

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AP Sports Writer Howie Rumberg contributed to this story.

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