By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
With news that the dream date of Raiders coaching candidates, Jon Gruden, has signed on with ESPN for another generation, much of the local fan base is zeroing in on Jim Harbaugh as the man to lead the Silver and Black back to glory.
It’s easy to see why Raiders fans would want Harbaugh. He has won wherever he’s coached, resuscitating two moribund college programs and one in the NFL. And he has done it with flair, humor, quirkiness and arrogance. Sounds like the perfect Raider, doesn’t he?
The question is whether Harbaugh would want to coach in Oakland. Assuming he and the 49ers don’t engage in some miraculous 11th-hour bridge building, and assuming they don’t trade him (because he can veto and such swap and stands to gain by doing so), Harbaugh will be among the most pursued coaches at two levels this offseason. He is already seen as having inside position in Ann Arbor, Miami and Chicago, with more destinations just waiting to be filled in.
East Bay optimists are feverishly connecting dots. Those who insist that Harbaugh is destined to coach the Raiders generally point to three favorable factors. (1) He coached in the organization before and is comfortable there. (2) He has an abiding respect and affection for late Raiders owner Al Davis. And (3) his wife, Sarah, likes the Bay Area and would prefer to stay here.
In honor of the 49ers’ season, let’s go in reverse. It may be true that Sarah Harbaugh is fond of the Bay Area, but here’s a quick pop quiz: Where will the Raiders be playing in three years? You’re right. We don’t know. Their Oakland Coliseum lease expires at the end of this season, which is approximately 12 days away.
There are rumors that the team is close to reaching an agreement with the city and Alameda County that would keep the Raiders in Oakland. Always, there are rumors. The truth is this franchise remains in limbo. It may figure out a way to get a stadium built in the Bay Area. Or it may end up in Los Angeles, or San Antonio. And how does Sarah Harbaugh feel about the Alamo?
What about Harbaugh’s attachment to Al Davis? This is very difficult for me, but I am about to break some sad news to Raiders fans. Please sit down. Take a deep breath and listen to what I’m about to say: Al is no longer with us. There’s a torch in the southeast corner of the Coliseum that people light in his memory, but the man no longer walks the halls of Raiders headquarters in Alameda.
If you read Cam Inman’s recent interview of Harbaugh that focused on his relationship with Davis, you’ll see that most of what the coach admired in the maverick owner had to do with football, with Xs and Os and talent evaluation and passion for the game.
Harbaugh may like Mark Davis a lot – they chatted briefly before the recent Raiders-49ers game at the Coliseum – but Mark is not a football guy in the way Al was, and his presence in Oakland isn’t a draw to Harbaugh in the way his father’s would have been.
So we’re left with the fact that Harbaugh coached with the Raiders for two years as an offensive assistant, 2002 and 2003. One of those years was great. One was awful. Sure, he probably learned a lot in that brief time (like what THG stands for and how Rich Gannon takes his coffee), and was grateful for the opportunity.
That sounds like a pretty flimsy foundation for choosing an employer.
Especially when you consider the negatives attached to this job. Forget about the 12 consecutive non-winning seasons. Harbaugh loves a challenge. But what about the money? Perhaps Mark Davis is determined to spend his way into the 21st Century. I still have a hard time imagining him outbidding, say, the Miami Dolphins or the University of Michigan, which is probably willing to double tuition to get its football coach.
Most important, geography isn’t the only uncertainty hanging over the Raiders right now. Most of the team’s beat writers believe that Reggie McKenzie will return as general manager despite three years of going nowhere. But what if the Raiders finish 3-13 next year? It’s hard to imagine McKenzie surviving another dismal season. He would follow Dennis Allen out the door and be replaced by a new GM
And what do new GMs like to do, above all? Bring in their own hand-picked coaches. There’s no reason to believe McKenzie’s replacement would be anti-Harbaugh. The point is, we just don’t know. It’s one more red flag, one more reason for Harbaugh to say no to the Raiders job should it be offered to him.
So, no Chucky and probably no Harby. But don’t despair, Raiders fans, the next John Madden is out there somewhere.