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Here's why it's believable that Jim Harbaugh would leave Michigan for return to NFL

·Columnist
·5 min read
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If Jim Harbaugh returns to the University of Michigan next season, it will mark his eighth in Ann Arbor, which would qualify as twice as long as any of his previous coaching stops in college or the NFL.

Does he want that?

With Harbaugh, you never know.

The Athletic reported Tuesday that Harbaugh “might be tempted to leave the Wolverines” and return to the NFL, which is vague but solidly accurate. Harbaugh has always been willing to be tempted to return to the NFL, especially this year if a good Las Vegas team or his old franchise, the Chicago Bears, come calling. And the Athletic reporter, Bruce Feldman, likely had someone in the Harbaugh camp give him a nod.

This all may be a power play by the coach, although it’s not like the school needed to be pushed to set up a long-term contract. He just won the Wolverines their first Big Ten title since 2004 and best victory (over hated Ohio State) since, what, the 1998 Rose Bowl?

Still, you never know where this is headed, only that it’s never dull around Jim Harbaugh. The only thing that’s predictable is the unpredictability.

Harbaugh, 58, has always burned hot and burned bridges. His 14 seasons playing in the NFL is best recalled for his comebacks and clashes with coaches (Mike Ditka, most notably).

As a college and pro coach, there is no questioning his ability, only that despite the enormous success he tends to wear out many people around him. Perhaps that’s a flaw. Perhaps that’s the secret to success. Either way, it’s real.

ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN - NOVEMBER 27: Head Coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines celebrates with fans after defeating the Ohio State Buckeyes at Michigan Stadium on November 27, 2021 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images)
Was one victory vs. Ohio State enough for Jim Harbaugh to stick around Ann Arbor? (Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images)

Harbaugh went 22-2 in the final two of his three seasons at non-scholarship University of San Diego. He turned long dormant Stanford into a force in four years flat. He went to three NFC title games and a Super Bowl in his first three years with the San Francisco 49ers, but was pushed out after season No. 4.

He’s the rare coach who can float between the pros and the college ranks and win games. Does he want to float back?

It was a surprise that Harbaugh returned to the college ranks in 2015. From 2011-2013, he went 36-11-1 and led the Niners to three playoff appearances, where he won five postseason games. He lost the Super Bowl on a goal-line stand, a conference championship game on a Richard Sherman batted pass and another in overtime.

Yet the 49ers brass was so exhausted by him that by Week 5 of his fourth season, despite a 3-2 record, speculation began that he wouldn’t be back. By December, he effectively resigned pending the end of the season, citing that management had given up on him.

Generally, NFL coaches with NFL possibilities, don’t willingly go back to college football. However, Michigan was his alma mater located in the town he grew up in as the son of a Bo Schembechler assistant. He was entrusted in righting the Wolverine ship – it had gone 24-32 in Big Ten play under Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke the previous seven years.

It took longer than expected, but he settled most family business – four 10-win seasons, the school’s first league title since 2004 and finally a long-awaited vanquishing of the Buckeyes. Yet his guaranteed pay was cut in half last year after a 2-4 pandemic-shortened season. It was replaced by an incentive-laden deal, which saw Harbaugh donate his bonus money (nearly $3 million) to the athletic department to repay workers who took pay cuts during COVID.

His at-times difficult, at-times aloof ways have continued. That’s him. Yet make no mistake, Michigan would love to have Harbaugh back, and with a renegotiated contract likely more in line with the $8 million-to-$10 million per year that other Big Ten coaches are making.

But seven years of Harbaugh is still seven years of Harbaugh.

The choice is his. And it may include NFL options by Monday.

That includes the Raiders, who could make the playoffs despite a tumultuous season that saw head coach Jon Gruden fired and star receiver Henry Ruggs charged with DUI resulting in death. It’s a ready-made situation if the team doesn’t give the job to interim coach Rich Bisaccia.

Or it could be the Bears, Harbaugh’s old team, which has a young QB in Justin Fields and an excellent defense to work with, but has struggled to win under Matt Nagy. Or it could be someone else.

There aren’t a lot of Super Bowl coaches out on the market. And since the NFL is a season-to-season, week-to-week proposition, worries about how long a franchise can handle Harbaugh don't matter so much.

Can he win now? Yeah, probably.

Will he go? Harbaugh spoke of how this season, particularly the win over Ohio State, felt like “a new beginning” and “the start of something.” He revamped his staff last offseason to include younger assistants and improve recruiting.

The program has energy, a lot of young talent, plus a five-star quarterback, Dante Moore, just down the road in Detroit, who could represent a transformative recruiting victory in the Class of 2023.

There are plenty of reasons to stay put. But seven years is seven years and Jim Harbaugh has never been one to stay anywhere too long, whether the choice is his or someone else's.

If he wants another crack at the NFL, it’ll probably be there. He did what he promised to do in Ann Arbor. Maybe he’ll want to do more. Or maybe he’ll be gone, again, seeking another new challenge.