Could Jim Harbaugh go back to NFL after Michigan stint? Insiders divided on embattled coach

Pete Thamel
·7 min read

We are living in an era of underwhelming NFL coaches. Adam Gase somehow got hired by the New York Jets, and is basically being kept as a sideline tanking device to secure the No. 1 NFL draft pick. And the pipeline is also thin, as the incessant annual coaching turnover has created few appealing options.

So what if there were a Super Bowl coach with a higher NFL winning percentage than Bill Belichick available? Well, he exists and could either be intrigued by a return to the NFL or forced there. And one of the most compelling storylines of this year’s coaching carousel will be whether NFL team owners and front offices can stomach hiring him.

That coach, of course, is Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh. He won at a nearly 70% clip (44-19-1) in his four seasons in San Francisco (2011-14), the fifth-best winning percentage in NFL history. He came within a whisker of winning the Super Bowl in the 2012 season, reached the playoffs three times and could have reached the Super Bowl in all of those postseason years. He also handled quarterbacks deftly, as Alex Smith thrived under his tutelage and Colin Kaepernick helped usher in a new era of NFL offense.

Buzz is filtering through NFL front offices that Harbaugh is open to return to the league. And that brings into focus the fascinating question of whether an NFL franchise would be tempted by the duality of Harbaugh’s NFL tenure – a track record of winning that came with significant headaches.

“I just don’t hear his name out there anywhere,” said an industry source. “I would be surprised if it happens.”

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh calls a timeout in the third quarter of an NCAA college football game against Ohio State in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019. Ohio State won 56-27. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh calls a timeout in the third quarter of an NCAA college football game against Ohio State in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019. Ohio State won 56-27. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)

Does the NFL want Jim Harbaugh back?

The record on the field is as distinguished as the bluster that has accompanied his exits, as his departure from San Francisco was as toxic, divisive and cartoonishly public as any in recent NFL history. The 49ers brass had a potentially generational head coach and openly plotted to undercut him. Does that say more about them or Harbaugh?

It was interesting calling around to front offices, industry sources and former NFL players who played under Harbaugh. There was a distinct division, as the possibility of him returning ranged from virtually no chance to ringing endorsements.

Does Harbaugh deserve another crack at the NFL?

“If Jim Harbaugh is available and he’s willing to coach in the NFL, I’m 1,000% positive there will be a market for him,” said Donte Whitner, the former 49ers safety who is an analyst for NBC Sports in the Bay Area.

Around the NFL, there’s a bit more skepticism.

“It’s a legitimate question,” said a longtime NFL executive. “He can’t quite get it fixed there at Michigan. When you leave a place in the NFL, if you have any scars, they’ll get you. And when he left San Francisco, it was scorched earth.”

So what’s next for Harbaugh at Michigan? It remains unlikely Michigan will fire him, as he has won 71% of his games, just none of the ones that matter as he’s 2-12 against top-10 teams and winless in five games against Ohio State. The most likely option is that he coaches out the final year on his deal in 2021.

But in the wake of a 27-24 loss to Michigan State on Saturday as a 24-point favorite, a renewed focus has been placed on Harbaugh’s limitations. Michigan is a slight favorite against Indiana this Saturday, and a loss to the Hoosiers would only increase the din about his shortcomings.

With only about 14 months remaining on his contract, is an escape hatch in the NFL available? Multiple sources warned against completely ruling out Harbaugh, as all it takes is one team owner to fall in love. And billionaires aren’t easily scared off by difficult personalities, as they usually see one in the mirror every morning. But expect the general managers and those who have to work with Harbaugh day-to-day to dig in past the winning percentage.

In Harbaugh’s only non-playoff season, an 8-8 year in 2014, ownership did everything but fly a plane over the stadium that read: “We are leaking stories to prepare you for firing Jim Harbaugh.”

Even in the cutthroat world of NFL egos and personality clashes, his exit from San Francisco dredged new ground for toxicity, in-fighting and competitive leaking. Anyone who called 49ers CEO Jed York, president Paraag Marathe or former general manager Trent Baalke would get an earful of horror stories about Harbaugh’s aloofness, bizarreness and his unique ability to wear on those tasked with working with him every day. (Amid the Big Ten’s shutdown during COVID-19, it likely creased a smile on the faces of Harbaugh’s old bosses that his president, Mark Schlissel, didn’t talk to Harbaugh. If they only had that option.)

The San Francisco front office’s comeuppance came when they followed up Harbaugh’s time there with one-year wonders Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly – burning money in jaw-dropping fashion along the way. The end was a mess for everyone.

The franchise owner who has long been infatuated with Harbaugh is the Miami Dolphins’ Stephen Ross, a major Michigan donor who has lusted after hiring Harbaugh since his coaching days at Stanford. Ross’ name is on the business school, and he considers the Wolverines his “Saturday team.”

But Ross’ Sunday team now has one of the most promising young coaches in the NFL, Brian Flores, who has built the culture for a long run of success in Miami. Plus, things with the Saturday team aren’t ideal.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh is seen during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh is seen during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Where could Harbaugh land if he leaves Michigan?

So where could he land? New Jets GM Joe Douglas likely doesn’t want to hitch his tenure to Harbaugh, who’d be fascinating in the New York market. Jacksonville is expected to open, but Baalke is the director of player personnel, and that relationship was so sideways it’s hard to imagine either side inhabiting the same building.

Could the Houston Texans or Atlanta Falcons be tempted? It’s hard to guess, as neither has a general manager. The Detroit Lions job, which isn’t as certain to open as others, seems an unlikely landing spot with his underwhelming tenure nearby at Michigan.

So will a franchise bite? NFL coaches aren’t typically well-adjusted humans. And the best ones tend to come with some distinct level of maintenance, as Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin aren’t exactly teddy bears.

“If the guy can coach and get your quarterback better, you deal with it,” said another veteran NFL executive. “How many Andy Reids are there out there? They are hard to find.”

Until Michigan, no one questioned the football acumen part of Harbaugh’s coaching package. He starred at Michigan, played 14 years in the NFL and had successful stints collegiately at San Diego and resurrecting Stanford. But Michigan’s inability to recruit or develop an above-average Big Ten quarterback in Harbaugh’s tenure has devalued that facet of his repertory. After stellar work with Andrew Luck at Stanford and innovative work with Smith and Kaepernick, some of the credit for that success has shifted to Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman.

Can Captain Comeback, Harbaugh’s old nickname, make a return to the NFL? Well, it depends on who you ask.

“I thought Jim was amazing,” said Ian Williams, a former 49ers defensive lineman who works now as an NFL analyst in the Bay Area. “I don’t know why you don’t pull the trigger and take a chance and see if he can create the same magic. He can be a spark to the city and the franchise and the fans.”

With Harbaugh, there’s no shortage of opinions. And it’s never boring, which is both the fear and the allure NFL front offices will face in pondering his hire this winter.

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