Niners can’t secure Harbaugh

Here’s today’s newspaper story, written at home after two failed hotel-lobby-Harbaugh stakeouts:

On the third day of the 49ers offseason, their true love, Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, didn’t give them a “yes.”

On Wednesday, Harbaugh, the hottest coaching candidate on the market, met for at least five hours with president and CEO Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke at an undisclosed Bay Area location, but did not leave with a deal in hand. After the meeting, a late-day report indicated the Niners will have serious competition if they want to secure Harbaugh’s services.

According to ESPN, Dolphins owner Steve Ross, general manager Jeff Ireland and well-respected former NFL executive Carl Peterson traveled to the West Coast on Wednesday in an effort to woo Harbaugh to Miami.  The Dolphins, who still have coach Tony Sparano in place, are reportedly prepared to make Harbaugh the NFL’s highest-paid coach. The Patriots’ Bill Belichick, who earns roughly $7.5 million a year, currently has that distinction.

The Dolphins have yet to comply with the NFL’s Rooney Rule requiring them to interview a minority candidate before making a hire.

It’s not clear if the Niners are willing to compete with Ross, a real estate mogul whose net worth was estimated by Forbes at 2.9 billion in 2009. The NFL Network reported that York has offered Harbaugh $4.5 million. York has said of hiring a new coach, “Money is no object. Our object is to win a Super Bowl.”

Harbaugh has turned down a reported offer of $5.2 million a year from the University of Michigan, his alma mater.

“When you have a bunch of billionaires chasing you around to be a part of an NFL program … If Jim feels like he’s ready for that, who would blame him?” Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said Wednesday.

The Niners have clearly made Harbaugh their top target, but appear to be piecing together a Plan B.

The San Jose Mercury News reported Wednesday night that San Francisco has had preliminary talks with former Broncos coach Josh McDaniels, 34. McDaniels was fired by Denver a 3-9 start this past season, his second with the Broncos. McDaniels started his head-coaching career with a 6-0 start in 2009, but lost 15 of his final 20 games.

On Nov. 27, the NFL fined McDaniels $50,000 for violating league rules after Broncos video operations director Steve Scarnecchia filmed the Niners’ walkthrough at Wembley Stadium a day before San Francisco’s 24-16 win on Halloween. After conducting an investigation, the NFL was satisfied that McDaniels didn’t look at the tape. But McDaniels also didn’t promptly report it to the NFL, which is a violation of the league’s policy. He was fired by the Broncos less than two weeks after he was fined.

In addition to McDaniels, Raiders offensive coordinator Hue Jackson could be a candidate.

On Wednesday morning, prior to meeting with Harbaugh, the Niners interviewed Jackson, who could be Oakland’s top choice to replace Tom Cable.

Under Jackson, 45, Oakland scored 410 points (6th in the NFL) this past season, nearly matching their combined total (460) from 2008-09. The Raiders also ranked 10th in the league in total offense after not ranking higher than 25th in the NFL from 2005-09.

In the season’s final 10 games, Oakland averaged 379.9 yards and gained more than 475 yards on four occasions. The Niners haven’t had 475 yards in a game since Dec. 14, 2003.

But McDaniels and Jackson don’t have the same cachet as Harbaugh, who has great appeal in light of the failed regimes of the Niners’ previous two defensive-minded coaches, Mike Singletary and Mike Nolan. San Francisco hasn’t finished higher than 23rd in the NFL in total offense since 2004, a seven-year stretch during which they have a record of 39-73.

Harbaugh, 47, has become an A-list candidate after resuscitating Stanford’s once-lifeless program. The Cardinal, who went 1-11 the season before his arrival, have a 29-21 record during his four-year tenure. This season, fifth-ranked Stanford went 12-1 and routed Virginia Tech, 40-12, in the Orange Bowl on Monday night.

Harbaugh, a former quarterback who had a 14-year NFL career, has a track record for developing young signal-callers. At Stanford, Harbaugh recruited Andrew Luck, who will be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft in April if he leaves school after his sophomore season. At the University of San Diego, where Harbaugh was the head coach from 2004-06, he developed Josh Johnson, who left the non-scholarship, Division I-AA program and was a fifth-round pick of the Buccaneers in the 2008 draft.

Still, Harbaugh has only two years of NFL coaching experience, as an assistant with the Raiders from 2002-03.

In addition, recent history has shown it’s difficult for college coaches to make the transition to the NFL. Nick Saban and Steve Spurrier, two prominent examples, posted a combined NFL record of 27-37, before returning to college, where they have more impressive resumes than Harbaugh.

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