Exclusive: What's driving Jim Harbaugh in NFL return? Chargers coach opens up on title chase

INDIANAPOLIS — Jim Harbaugh is almost always good for some random story that can fit a given situation, drive home a point or just leave you in stitches. Still.

So, it seemed fitting last week that as the new Los Angeles Chargers coach strolled the hallways of the Indiana Convention Center with his son Jack in tow, a bubbly Harbaugh wanted to share a flashback about the time he met Olympic hero Jesse Owens.

It happened during the early 1970s, when Jim’s father, Jack, was an assistant coach at Iowa. Jack took his two boys, John and Jim, on a recruiting trip to Cedar Rapids, where Owens – who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and in the cradle of Nazi Germany made a mockery of Adolf Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy – was being honored at a high school. Jim remembers his dad telling his boys, both of whom were probably under 10 years old at the time, that they should go over and get Owens’ autograph. So, they joined the throng of kids, and Owens apparently patiently signed away.

After getting their keepsakes and walking away, the Harbaugh kids circled back. They went back to thank Owens.

"That really made my dad happy," Jim told USA TODAY Sports. "(Owens) said that of all the kids he signed for, we were the only kids to say thank you. He said he knew we were raised well."

As Jim recalled that moment, he just so happened to be headed to a meet-up with his brother John during the NFL scouting combine. And surely, Jack is still proud of his sons. The Harbaughs – the first brothers to serve as NFL head coaches at the same time (2011), then the first duo to face off in the Super Bowl (2013) – are again running in the same circles as the younger one returns with a fresh college football national championship on his resume and undoubtedly wants to one-up his counterpart.

Los Angeles Chargers coach Jim Harbaugh speaks at an introductory press conference at YouTube Theater at SoFi Stadium.
Los Angeles Chargers coach Jim Harbaugh speaks at an introductory press conference at YouTube Theater at SoFi Stadium.

After Michigan routed Washington in the title game to cap an undefeated season – which included the bizarre twist of the coach serving two three-game suspensions – Harbaugh declared that he could finally sit at the "big person’s table" in the family with a title in hand. Jack led Western Kentucky to an NCAA Division 1-AA title and John led his Baltimore Ravens to a win against Jim’s San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl 47. Now Jim, who coached nine seasons at Michigan, finally has a crown.

And it’s not enough. Why did he come back to the NFL?

"It’s the challenge," Harbaugh maintained. "I want to win the Lombardi Trophy."

Jim didn’t frame it as such, but the sibling rivalry now has a new chapter with both brothers chasing the same prize. The Ravens seemed positioned to win the Super Bowl this past season, earning the AFC's No. 1 seed before getting upset by the Kansas City Chiefs. Now the Chargers, with the impressive hiring of Jim, seem positioned to rise from the mess of a 5-12 finish in 2023 and ultimately wind up in the mix of contenders.

"I know he’s going to bring out the best in me," Jim, 60, said of his big brother. "The guy’s such a tough-ass competitor. He just pulls it out of you, makes you rise up to be your best. I think he’s the best of the best. And there are 30 other (NFL) coaches just like him."

Of course, Jim’s track record fuels so much hope for a Chargers franchise that has such a distinct history for underachieving. He won three straight Big Ten titles and the national crown at Michigan. He took the 49ers to a Super Bowl and posted regular-season records of 13-3, 11-4-1 and 12-4 in the first three seasons of a four-year stint. He produced an 11-1 mark during his best campaign at Stanford. He won two conference titles and fielded a Football Championship Subdivision power at the University of San Diego.

He’s merely won wherever he’s been.

What’s changed since his last stint in the NFL? Harbaugh, who "mutually parted ways" with the 49ers after the 2014 season, mentions the influence of analytics as a difference. As much as he subscribes to old-school principles, he says he respects the use of data.

Then he added, "One thing that hasn’t changed: Bottom line, you’ve got to win."

During the week of the combine, the NFL arranged news conferences for more than 40 head coaches and general managers, but Harbaugh wasn’t among them. New Chargers GM Joe Hortiz fielded questions, but Harbaugh sought to lower his profile by not having a news conference and declining the bulk of interview requests.

"Less talk, more action," he said. "What you do speaks so loudly."

In any event, it was notable in another sense that Harbaugh showed up at the combine. It’s become a growing trend in recent years for several head coaches to not attend the event while maintaining that their time is spent more efficiently at team headquarters. Back home, they can still watch the workouts and get testing results instantly. And the interview sessions are recorded. This year’s list of no-shows included Sean McVay (Rams), Matt LaFleur (Packers), Mike McCarthy (Cowboys), Robert Saleh (Jets) and Kyle Shanahan (49ers).

To have so many head coaches bail out has become a weird look for the league, which invites more than 300 of the top prospects to the combine, considered something of an NFL introduction.

Harbaugh, though, was eager to be at the combine. And not just because it’s another marker on his NFL comeback trail.

"Everybody’s got their own process," he said. "Everybody’s got to do what they think is more valuable with their time, so you can’t judge their process. But I would hate to miss out on this. It’s worth it just to see the gleam in the eyes of the guys. And not just my guys."

Harbaugh could have a built-in advantage for his NFL return, given the familiarity with players across the college landscape.

"We’ve got 18 guys here that I know pretty well," Harbaugh said. "A lot of them from the other teams, I recruited. Just to see where they are now, it’s exciting. The best part of this is the players, starting their journey. And this is the culmination of a lot of hard work. I love the combine."

It’s striking that when Harbaugh came out of Michigan in 1987 as a quarterback who would be drafted in the first round, the combine was staged in Indianapolis for the first time. Now Michigan set a combine record by sending 18 players off the title team to the event, surpassing the 16 invitees from LSU in 2020.

Naturally, when Wolverines players conducted news conferences last week, the Harbaugh stories flowed.

Mike Barrett, whom Michigan cites as the winningest player in school history after being part of teams that recorded 61 victories in total, reminisced about Harbaugh eating a whole pizza in a single sitting as he came to Barrett’s home in Georgia on a recruiting trip. J.J. McCarthy mentioned how Harbaugh popped into the room as the quarterback was about to interview with the Seattle Seahawks.

"As he was leaving," McCarthy said, "the Seahawks guys were saying, 'Oh, you wouldn’t be in here if Coach (Pete) Carroll was still our head coach.'"

No, things weren’t always so smooth between Harbaugh and Carroll – especially when they were rivals in the then-Pac-10.

Braiden McGregor, the edge rusher, shared why he was hardly surprised that Harbaugh made the jump back to the NFL.

"He’s always told us that it was his dream to go back to the Super Bowl and win the Super Bowl," McGregor said.

Harbaugh said that he’s still contemplating the themes for his new group of players, although we can guess it will revolve around winning and high standards. With key roster decisions, free agency and the draft coming, Harbaugh’s first Chargers team is far from being formalized. Yet in the weeks since taking over (and weeks away from the start of formal offseason workouts), he’s begun the process of connecting with his players individually.

"Right now, it’s just getting to know each person," he said. "Those 30-minute conversations. Where can I help? What do they see? What can I start working on? What can I start chipping away at? Those are the things I want to know from players, from people in then organizations. Those have been taking place and they’ve been really constructive."

Which is only the beginning of this new mission for Harbaugh – and potential for a few more good stories.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jim Harbaugh opens up on NFL return, chasing title, sibling rivalry