Kansas football: What if Jim Harbaugh had been hired as head coach in 2009?

Jim Harbaugh was a candidate for the Kansas football head coach role in 2009 and wanted the job. Instead, Turner Gill was hired, and the rest was history. Very bad history.
Jim Harbaugh holding the National Championship trophy
Jim Harbaugh holding the National Championship trophy / Stacy Revere/GettyImages

In 2009, Jim Harbaugh was interviewed for the role of head coach of the Kansas football team but was passed over for Turner Gill.

In a terrific breakdown describing the downfall of Mark Mangino, and an accounting of the next decade of horrible football at Kansas by Jayson Jenks and Rustin Dodds of The Athletic (subscription required), it was revealed that Harbaugh was very interested in the job and would have taken it if offered.

Harbaugh's wife was from the area, so the job in Lawrence held appeal for him. According to Jenks and Dodds, the Stanford coach was upfront with the KU Athletic Director at the time, Lew Perkins, that he would probably leave if Harbaugh was ever offered an NFL job or the head coaching role at Michigan.

Perkins decided to turn to Turner Gill instead of Harbaugh and several other higher-profile candidates. The horrific decision led to more than a decade of embarrassment for the KU football program.

How might history be different if Jim Harbaugh had been hired as the Kansas football coach?

In the 11 seasons between Mangino and Lance Leipold, The Jayhawks posted an abysmal record of 21-108. In conference play, it was even worse — an almost unbelievable 4-84 record, including a 56-game road losing streak.

If you stretch that time frame from the last half of Mangino's final year, when KU finished 0-7 after a 5-0 start, through Leipold's first season of picking up the pieces left by Les Miles' trainwreck, Kansas went 23-125 overall, and 5-101 in Big 12 play.

Harbaugh was coming off an 8-5 campaign at Stanford, but, according to The Athletic article, Perkins wanted someone willing to commit long-term to the program (that didn't work out well at all).

As a Kansas fan, one can always wonder what would have happened to the Kansas program if Perkins had taken a chance on an up-and-coming guy with pedigree like Harbaugh.

In the end, Harbaugh stayed at Stanford, went 12-1 in 2010, and won the Orange Bowl. That success led to an offer by the 49ers.

Harbaugh coached in San Francisco for four years, compiling a 44-19-1 record and leading the Niners to a Super Bowl in 2013, where they lost to his brother John and the Ravens.

In 2015, the Wolverines came calling, and Harbaugh took the job, and just capped off a nine-year run in which Michigan went 89-25, culminating in a National Championship earlier this month.

At face value, maybe Perkins' fears in 2009 were justified. Eventually, both the NFL and Michigan came calling and Harbaugh left the job he was in both times, just like he told Perkins he would.

Here's where the "what if" comes into play. What if he had been offered and had taken the Kansas job? He probably doesn't lead KU to a 12-1 record in 2010. Many of the star players had graduated and he would have needed to reload a bit.

Without that 12-1 record, in the 49ers' backyard, they probably don't come knocking on his door at that point. Most likely, Harbaugh would have had at least 2-3 years to build upon Mangino's success.

Eventually, the NFL or Michigan probably would have contacted him, especially if he had any success at Kansas. Perkins was most likely correct in that Harbaugh wouldn't have been the long-term solution for Kansas.

But neither was Turner Gill, or Charlie Weis, or Dave Beaty, or Les Miles.

Even if Harbaugh had been hired and stayed just a few seasons, the program certainly wouldn't have become the disaster it soon became. It would have more attractive to other coaches and the program probably would not have devolved into the the worst stretch of seasons in college football history.

No one knows for sure what that alternative world might have looked like, but it is hard to believe it would have been as bad as reality.

Kansas football has a bright future under Lance Leipold

Now, happily, that is all in the past. Leipold is building a culture in which players want to belong. He's recruiting a level of prospects Kansas just never tried to recruit before, not just in the past decade or so, but ever.

With a brand new Big 12 Conference on the horizon in 2024, sentiment is it is open to just about any school. There is a power vacuum left behind by the the departures of Texas and Oklahoma and any team could rise to become a power.

Leipold has the Kansas Jayhawks in a position to be one of the teams that will contend for a power spot in the conference. Considering where this program was just 24 months ago, that is an amazing accomplishment.

Hopefully, the school and the program have learned from their past and Kansas football will never be in the position they were in for over a decade. The future looks bright and that is what Kansas fans should concentrate on now.