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 signed a five-year deal and remains right at home in the Bay Area, moving to the NFL after four years with the Cardinal. A longtime NFL quarterback, Harbaugh replaces fired coach Mike Singletary.
Harbaugh's contract averages $5 million per season, a league source told NFL Network insider Jason La Canfora.
Harbaugh, 47, decided to leave Stanford for the pros even though San Francisco has missed the playoffs for eight consecutive seasons and Orange Bowl MVP quarterback Andrew Luck announced Thursday that he would remain with the Cardinal for another season.
"I can feel the enthusiasm coursing through my veins right now," said Harbaugh, who was going to 49ers headquarters Friday night to start work. "I accept this competitive challenge willingly."
The 49ers pulled out all the stops to introduce Harbaugh. The swanky Palace Hotel in downtown San Francisco rolled out a special red carpet for the coach'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 the season with a school-record 12 wins following a 40-12 victory over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl on Monday night. It has 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 Chicago 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 he said 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 night, 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.
It was very obvious that Harbaugh was the top candidate in San Francisco, but there were others in the mix.
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League sources told La Canfora that the team interviewed former Seattle Seahawks coach Jim Mora and current Oakland Raiders offensive coordinator Hue Jackson during their search. Mora has head-coaching and defensive coordinator experience, and he's a possibility as a defensive coordinator with other teams depending on how certain head-coaching jobs are filled.
La Canfora also reported that some expect Mora to receive consideration for the Stanford job that Harbaugh vacated, but there has been no contact to this point.
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 in a row to begin a 2-14 season in 1979, Walsh's first year as coach.
The 49ers finished 6-10 this season -- in the chase for a playoff berth in the NFL's worst division until the second-to-last week -- and haven't posted 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 of Harbaugh. "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 groom 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 quarterback is high on the 49ers' to-do list during what should be a busy offseason.
La Canfora reported that Vic Fangio, Harbaugh's defensive coordinator with Stanford, is very close with him, and several league sources expect him to join the 49ers' staff.
"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 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 the Dolphins.
"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," Harbaugh 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."
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 into a winner and bowl contender.
The Cardinal 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.
"It's the process of building a team, being part of a team and leading a team, and working at it," he said. "It's committing a lot of energy to it. There are definitely similarities."
When the Stanford football team 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, 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, Ravens, Indianapolis Colts, San Diego Chargers and Carolina 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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.