The Possibilities for Replacing Harbaugh

With Jim Harbaugh set to become the next head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, Stanford will move quickly to find his replacement. The program needs to have a head coach in place as soon as possible in order to lock down Stanford's 2011 recruiting class, some of whom might defect to other programs, since Harbaugh will no longer be on the Cardinal sideline.

Indeed, a big reason for Harbaugh's success was his ability to turn Stanford into a recruiting power, bringing players from all over the country to the Farm. Some prominent recruits, like Amir Carlisle and James Vaughters, have already said that they may reopen their recruitment, and rival schools have targeted some of Stanford's verbal commitments. National Signing Day is February 2, and if Stanford does not have a coach well before that date, in my opinion, it can kiss its recruiting class goodbye.

The new coach will also have to work to retain Harbaugh's excellent coaching staff, some of which may be tempted to join him with the 49ers. Particularly important for Stanford is to try to retain defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, whom Harbaugh brought in from the NFL this season. Fangio vastly improved the Cardinal defense, making it the 10th-ranked unit nationally in points allowed. Though often overlooked, Stanford's marked defensive improvement this season was the biggest difference between last year's 8-5 squad and this season's Orange Bowl championship.

Stanford will look to recruit a head coach who runs a pro-style offense, similar to the system employed with such great effect during Harbaugh's tenure. The system, similar to what most NFL teams employ, puts emphasis on the play up front of the offensive line and tight ends, utilizing a drop-back passer and a punishing, physical running game to wear down opposing defenses. With quarterback Andrew Luck set to return next season, the Cardinal will need a coach capable of using his talents to their full potential. Most importantly, Stanford will probably hire a coach who ensures some sort of continuity with the past four seasons, the most successful in program history; after all, it's been working, so why try to change anything?

The candidates to lead Stanford's program broadly break down into three categories: external, internal, and the candidates you'll hear the names of, but probably aren't going to get the job.

External

Chris Petersen, head coach, Boise State
Petersen is the biggest name of the entire group, and is probably at the top of athletic director Bob Bowlsby's wish list. Petersen's track record at Boise State speaks for itself: a 61-5 career record as head coach, two Fiesta Bowl wins and four WAC championships. Petersen is an excellent quarterbacks coach, developing both Jared Zabransky and Kellen Moore into some of the top-rated passers in the NCAA during their time in Boise. Moore was in New York with Luck this past January as a Heisman Trophy finalist. Stanford could also easily top Petersen's current salary for coaching the Broncos, currently set at about $1.6 million annually.

Most importantly, Petersen could perpetuate Harbaugh's two biggest accomplishments: consistently recruiting excellent players and building a winning culture at Stanford. Petersen has certainly installed that type of culture at Boise State, where WAC championships and BCS appearances are the standard the program now measures itself by. He is also experienced in recruiting in California, where the Broncos have drawn many of their impact players from in the past few seasons. Even though a number of BCS-conference programs have made a run at Petersen in the past, Stanford might be the one to finally land him—with TCU and Utah headed to AQ conferences, it will be nearly impossible for Boise State to ever get a fair crack at a national title, but Petersen could certainly get there next year with Andrew Luck under center.

Mike Belotti, former head coach, Oregon
None of the coaching candidates out there knows the Pac-10 like Belotti, who currently works as a commentator for ESPN. Belotti left Oregon after a short stint as its athletic director, but has said he wants to get back into coaching. Stanford would be a good fit, if only because Belotti knows the conference and knows how to recruit in it. However, Belotti was also the first adopter of the Quack Attack spread-option offense at Oregon, a direct clash with the pro-style system of the Harbaugh years. For this reason, Bowlsby may shy away from hiring Belotti; his first priority is to keep Andrew Luck happy, and a radical offensive adjustment could seriously derail both his and the Cardinal's 2011 plans.

Jon Gruden, former NFL head coach
Gruden's name has been brought up in connection with every head coaching vacancy this offseason, pro or college, and Bowlsby could certainly take a look at him. Stanford's success was built largely on an NFL system coached by NFL veterans, so hiring Gruden would ensure continuity there. A big name like Gruden would also lure recruits to the Farm, as well as keep the current staff largely intact. Gruden has never been a head coach at the college level, though, and could be outclassed on the recruiting trail by savvier coaches.

Internal

Stanford is seriously considering promoting from within to fill its vacancy. Harbaugh's staff is full of highly capable coaches that would continue to run the program in his image. Promoting from within could also help keep both recruits and assistants on board.

Greg Roman, assistant head coach and David Shaw, offensive coordinator
Roman was Harbaugh's right-hand man during Stanford's Orange Bowl run, and would be a very capable hire to fill his shoes. Shaw was the architect of Stanford's explosive offense. Both men would keep Stanford on its current trajectory and make sure that Andrew Luck doesn't fall off next season. Other than hiring Petersen, both Roman and Shaw give Stanford its best chance at holding its current recruiting class together, and also having Harbaugh's ability to recruit players nationwide to fit the system.

Vic Fangio, defensive coordinator
Bowlsby has reportedly talked to Fangio as well, given that his arrival heralded the transformation of Stanford's defense into one of the conference's best. However, Fangio doesn't have that much experience at the college level, and recruiting could slip if he's promoted to head coach. While the next head coach is likely to make every effort to keep Fangio from joining Harbaugh in San Francisco, Fangio just doesn't have enough experience with the college game to be given the keys to the program, in my opinion.

Names you'll hear, but won't be hired

With every coaching vacancy, several names come up, but don't look for Stanford to be hiring any of these guys soon.

Brady Hoke, head coach, San Diego State
Hoke has done a masterful job of turning the Aztecs around, but he's said to be Michigan's top candidate to replace the fired Rich Rodriguez. Hoke is a "Michigan man" so if the Wolverines come calling as expected, he'll get to Ann Arbor even if he has to walk there from Qualcomm Stadium.

Gus Malzahn, offensive coordinator, Auburn
Malzahn is the proverbial "hot coordinator" who everyone wants to get their hands on, after the success enjoyed by Cam Newton and the Auburn offense this season. However, Malzahn is famous as the acolyte of the spread offense--Luck and the rest of the Stanford offense would have to do a 180-degree turnaround to start playing in that system. Auburn also just gave Malzahn a fat new contract, so it doesn't look like he'll be leaving the Plains anytime soon.


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