Jim Harbaugh’s hard to like, but he’s underpaid

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AUSTIN – When the Texas Longhorns tried to hire Jim Harbaugh to be their head football coach, I wondered why they bothered.   What chance could they have of landing a coach who was coming off a Super Bowl appearance?  And, earthquakes aside, living in one of the world’s most beloved cities?

But it turns out, according to a source close to UT Athletics Director Steve Patterson, that Harbaugh for at least a few days did consider opting out with the San Francisco 49ers and returning to college coaching.

It’s probably for the best that Harbaugh decided not to venture into the capital of Texas, where politics and football intertwine and talking smooth counts as much as winning games.  With his penchant for the ill-considered outburst, he surely would have battled with an ever meddlesome board of regents.

The next team to pursue Harbaugh – at least that’s been reported – was the Cleveland Browns.  Initially, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam contacted 49ers assistants Greg Roman and Jim Tomsula about his team’s head coaching vacancy.  But while interviewing them he became aware that Harbaugh himself might be interested.  Such is the tension in Harbaugh’s relationship with general manager Trent Baalke.

Though not celebrated by media, Baalke is brilliant at managing the roster and salary cap.  His acquisition of Anquan Boldin prior to last season was a crucial move.  Not only does he excel at adding talent, he’s the rare GM who knows how to subtract.  He was wise to let Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson and starting nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga walk.

At any rate, 49ers owner Jed York has let it be known that if he must choose between Baalke or Harbaugh, he will keep the former.  Surely Harbaugh is not happy about that, though he professes to be comfortable with the arrangement.  There are no reports of Baalke pushing him out.

For a close-up view of Harbaugh vs. Baalke, go to Tim Kawakami, San Jose Mercury News:  “There are probably too many past disagreements to fully repair the relationship.  . . .  As long as Harbaugh is their coach there will be crises brewing and other teams bidding for his services.”

So Haslam called York to offer draft picks for Harbaugh.  The conversation was brief, but the fact that it took place at all (belatedly acknowledged by York) led to media speculation that Harbaugh will leave after the next football season.

Harbaugh is in the fourth year of a 5-year, $25 million contract.   He expected a lucrative extension after his third consecutive conference championship appearance and a 36-11-1 regular-season record.  But Baalke and 49ers president Paraag Marathe, who manages the finances, expect Harbaugh to win a Super Bowl before being paid like those who have.

So Harbaugh is set to earn about the same salary this year as Philadelphia’s No. 3 wide receiver, the much pilloried Riley Cooper.  Harbaugh even with a raise to 6 mil still would make less than Dennis Pitta, a just-above-average tight end who recently signed a new contract with Baltimore.

Keep in mind, coaching salaries do not count against the salary cap.  There’s no disincentive to raise a coach’s salary.

Harbaugh insists, at least publicly, that he’s happy with his salary.  He told Sports Illustrated there’s “zero chance” he will leave before his contract ends.  He also told SI  he doesn’t want more power and that he wants more money only for his assistants, not for himself.

He contradicted a Mercury News report that he and his agent last summer said there would be no contract extension unless he becomes “the NFL’s top-paid coach.”

Perhaps the bar has been re-set, after division mate Seattle won the Super Bowl with a young team that loves its coach.  Harbaugh is no Pete Carroll.  He doesn’t have the fraternal relationship with his players, and he does things that disturb his bosses.

For one, his exploitation of Aldon Smith, a very talented but immature 24-year-old linebacker charged with alcohol and weapons violations.   Harbaugh pulled the troubled player out of rehab to rush him back to the field ahead of his treatment schedule.

Harbaugh is the most annoying coach in the league (apologies to Bill Belichick), constantly complaining about officials robbing his team and opposing coaches trying to influence officials.  He invariably comes off as petty or wrong, usually both.  

When he’s not a sore loser, he’s a gloating winner. Recall blaming the refs for last year’s Super Bowl loss to his brother, and his overly exuberant handshake after beating Detroit coach Jim Schwartz on his home field in 2012. Boorish behavior, not to mention shabby clothes (oh what the hell, let’s mention ’em), does not please a city that prides itself, above all else, on its sophistication.

Reports have surfaced that Harbaugh’s players resent his showboating and bombast.  Too often the players are seen trying to calm the coach, a control freak who lacks self control.

But since when was likability essential to coaching success?   Belichick and Tom Coughlin have won multiple Super Bowls despite – if not because of – their overbearing personalities.

A too common mistake of pro-football owners is to undervalue their head coach.  We saw this, most famously, with Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson.  There was also Al Davis and Jon Gruden, even though the Raiders received a parcel of draft picks for the coach.  The effects of those miscalculations linger more than a decade later.

True, an elite coach always has a fine staff, and sometimes an assistant takes over and maintains excellence.  Mike Tomlin stepped in nicely for Bill Cowher in Pittsburgh. Belichick followed Bill Parcells in New England.   But recall how New Orleans struggled in 2012 without Sean Payton.

It’s always a gamble to let a winning coach go.  For the good of the team and its many fans, the 49ers top brass should ignore the silly yet mostly harmless antics of Harbaugh and pay him closer to what he deserves.

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