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San Francisco pins hopes on new coach Jim Harbaugh

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The San Francisco 49ers have turned to Jim Harbaugh, one of the top coaches in the highly competitive U.S. college system, to help rebuild their team after eight years of missing the NFL playoffs.

"If you're a 49ers fan, this is the start of a new generation," Baalke told a news conference broadcast live on U.S. national television.

"I met this man about six years ago at a college All Stars game and I kind of fell in love with his energy. He had passion, and in order to succeed in this business I think you need to have that."

A former quarterback who spent 15 seasons in the NFL, Harbaugh replaced Mike Singletary, who was fired last month after the 49ers came up short in the regular season.

Local media said Harbaugh agreed to a five-year deal worth $25 million.

"This is a great day for me," Harbaugh said. "This is the perfect competitive opportunity for me and the rest of the San Francisco organization."

Harbaugh was selected by the Chicago Bears in the first round of the 1987 NFL draft and went on to play for the Indianapolis Colts, Baltimore Ravens, San Diego Chargers and Carolina Panthers.

He spent three years at San Diego and the past four seasons in charge of Stanford, leading the team to an emphatic win in the Orange Bowl earlier this week, triggering speculation that he would be lured to the NFL.

Local media reported that several teams, including the Miami Dolphins, had made approaches to him but Harbaugh said the challenge of trying to revive the sagging fortunes of the 49ers was what ultimately lured him to San Francisco.

"I can feel the enthusiasm coursing through my veins right now," he said. "I accept this competitive challenge willingly."

They have struggled in recent seasons and have not made the playoffs since 2002.

They were tipped to win the NFC West Division this season but stumbled out of the gate, losing their five games, despite playing in the league's weakest division.

(Reporting by Julian Linden in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue)