The Miami Dolphins, meanwhile, remain seriously interested after failing to land former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden and now are re-focused on Harbaugh. Dolphins owner Steve Ross is seeking another meeting with the Stanford coach, this time in California.
|Jim Harbaugh led Stanford to a 12-1 record and a 40-12 Orange Bowl victory over Virginia Tech this season. (Matt York/Associated Press)|
Harbaugh is seeking a deal worth around $6.5 million per season, which Pete Carroll received from the Seattle Seahawks last year to leave USC. And while several people close to Harbaugh have advised him against going to the 49ers because of their front-office structure, he has received more favorable reports on Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland.
Ross, Ireland and Dolphins CEO Mike Dee were on the Stanford sideline before Monday's Orange Bowl in Miami, and league sources said the team has made repeated contact with Harbaugh after finishing 7-9 for the second consecutive season.
The Dolphins have been unwilling to blow up their football-operations department, which took them out of the running for former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher. Dolphins officials believe they need to make a splash and land a coach who can have the team play more attractive football than Tony Sparano -- who's still employed at the moment -- and make Miami more riveting in what can be a fickle professional sports market.
Messages left by The Associated Press for Harbaugh's agent, Jack Bechta, weren't immediately returned Wednesday.
The 49ers have contingency plans if they fail to land Harbaugh.
Former Denver Broncos coach Josh McDaniels would be high on San Francisco's list, as the team heard repeated positive sentiment about him through the hiring process. However, sources close to McDaniels believe it's virtually certain he wouldn't go to the 49ers given their current front-office structure, and it's far more likely he would wind up with the Atlanta Falcons as their offensive coordinator should Mike Mularkey land as a head coach elsewhere.
Earlier in the day, the 49ers interviewed Oakland Raiders offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, who made a strong impression on the team. Jackson has enjoyed sustained success with young quarterbacks and implementing a productive offensive system in Oakland -- something San Francisco covets.
Jackson's interview complies with the NFL's Rooney Rule, which requires that a minority candidate be interviewed. The 49ers now can consummate a contract with any coach.
Harbaugh already lives in the Bay Area with his young family, and several sources close to the situation estimate the 49ers are the favorites right now, with ample potential for a deal to be quickly completed. Over the past week, Harbaugh has focused more on NFL opportunities, with the University of Michigan, where he played, losing traction as a possibility.
"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 told The Associated Press.
With so many suitors, Harbaugh is in a position to call the shots, though he has a tendency to go back and forth at times. So until he signs a contract, nothing is decided. Harbaugh doesn't want to string along his players, coaches and officials at Stanford any longer than need be, which also could result in a resolution by the weekend.
The 49ers announced Trent Baalke as their new general manager Tuesday night, and he's now looking for the coach to replace Mike Singletary, fired following a 25-17 loss at St. Louis on Dec. 26 that eliminated San Francisco from the playoffs for an eighth consecutive season.
Baalke has said he expects to have a coach in place by Friday, according to team sources.
Harbaugh, 47, has been at Stanford since 2007. This season, he led the Cardinal to a program-best 12-1 record and an Orange Bowl victory.
Harbaugh is 58-27 overall as a college coach and 29-21 in four seasons at Stanford. He took over a 1-11 Cardinal team when he was hired in December 2006 and quickly turned the program into a winner and bowl contender.
Stanford went 4-8 in Harbaugh's 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.
Many believe Harbaugh is ready to make the leap to the next level, eager for a new challenge. He was the Oakland Raiders' quarterbacks coach from 2002 to 2003 before spending three seasons as head coach at the University of San Diego.
When Stanford arrived back on campus Tuesday, one man hollered "Stay in the Bay Area!" when Harbaugh hopped off the bus holding his toddler daughter, Addison.
Harbaugh played 15 seasons in the NFL for the Chicago Bears, Indianapolis Colts, Baltimore Ravens, San Diego Chargers and Carolina Panthers. A first-round draft pick taken 26th overall by the Bears in 1987, Harbaugh completed 2,305 of 3,918 passes for 26,288 yards and 129 touchdowns in the NFL. He also ran for 18 scores.
Harbaugh's brother, John, is the coach of the Baltimore Ravens, who are in the playoffs as a wild-card team this season.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.