Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh is closing out a controversial season in his quest for an elusive national championship, but the spotlight isn’t expected to dim after the season.
Harbaugh has flirted with a return to the NFL sideline over the past two offseasons, and it is believed that teams will continue to pursue him during the next hiring cycle. The Carolina Panthers, Las Vegas Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers have already fired their coaches, and more openings are likely coming within weeks.
Harbaugh’s credentials are complicated, top team executives around the league said. Although he is a proven winner capable of creating a strong culture in the locker room, Harbaugh has a reputation for having contentious relationships with front-office personnel, so team owners must balance the entire equation while determining if he is right for the job.
“He is well respected as a football coach,” said a team executive who, like the other sources for this story, was granted anonymity so he could speak openly. “He’s won everywhere he’s gone, but what comes with it?
NCAA notifies Michigan of Level I charges against Jim Harbaugh
After successful stints as head coach at the University of San Diego (2004-06) and Stanford (2007-10), Harbaugh quickly turned around a San Francisco 49ers organization that had not established winning record for eight consecutive seasons. Under his leadership from 2011 to 2014, the Niners collected 44 regular season victories (fourth in the NFL), two NFC West titles and a trip to Super Bowl XLVII. But relations were strained, and Harbaugh and the Niners agreed to part ways after an 8-8 season in 2014.
Harbaugh has been coaching his alma mater since 2015, but speculation has swirled for years that he could return to the NFL. He interviewed with the Vikings two years ago and with the Broncos last offseason, when he also spoke with Panthers owner David Tepper about their vacancy.
This season, Harbaugh served two separate suspensions – one self-imposed from Michigan for recruiting violations and another from the Big Ten relating to the program’s sign-stealing scandal – which only reinforced the idea that the player 60-year-old might be inclined to find a fresh start in the NFL.
Michigan at the Rose Bowl: Bo Schembechler changed his story – will Jim Harbaugh?
One executive thought Harbaugh’s approach would fit well with the Raiders’ brand. Or if the Bears opt for a coaching reset, the franchise’s 1987 first-round pick would be touted as an organizational savior. Because of Harbaugh’s strong personality and on-camera presence, he would also protect his quarterback – whether it be Justin Fields or a draft pick such as Caleb Williams or Drake Maye – from some of the external pressure that comes with the position.
“I can’t tell you what individual teams will value, but I suspect an owner would look to a successful college coach with NFL experience,” another league executive said.
Harbaugh has influence, assuming he’s not worried about the future ramifications of the school and NCAA investigations. He’s made Michigan a consistent national power, and it sure seems like he has the support of the fan base despite the suspensions. Harbaugh could essentially ask for a blank check and personnel audit.
“He can probably ask for whatever he wants,” the first executive said.
Of course, it is up to the owner to decide whether or not to accept these requests. First, the organization needs to decide why things went wrong for Harbaugh in San Francisco. How much blame does he deserve compared to owners and high-ranking executives, including former general manager Trent Baalke? How responsible is Harbaugh for his role in this departure? And has he taken steps to improve?
Likewise, every executive interviewed for this story said: Harbaugh is not the most popular figure among NFL front offices, including staff and scouts. A senior executive said that despite years of visits to Harbaugh’s college programs, the head coach never spoke to him.
“I think it’s going to generate interest (this hiring cycle),” another executive said. “But the GM duo will be important.”
On the surface, these may appear as bitter feelings that shouldn’t get in the way of winning football games at the NFL level, and the idea of overcoming differences to work toward a common goal certainly has merit.
But what if it was more than that? What if Harbaugh was his usual self and the 49ers fallout wasn’t a one-time event? Like it or not, every NFL head coach needs a building full of allies. When a team faces adversity – controversy, a losing season or even a losing streak – it’s necessary for everyone to come together rather than divide. Leaks, whether to the owner or to the media, can be the quickest way for a coach to lose the team and his job.
“As a general manager, you have to be able to work with the head coach,” another executive said. “Its very important. I don’t know how many future general managers he is close with.
It’s fair to wonder whether Harbaugh would be a good fit at Carolina, where Tepper’s hands-on approach could become a problem. And if it becomes a bidding war for Harbaugh, there’s reason to believe the Chargers won’t be a leading contender, even though their owners have said that going into their coaching search, “everything will be a possibility.”
It will be important to keep an eye on the rest of the job postings. More so, will these teams keep their general manager in place or allow Harbaugh to select his primary personnel leader?
“Is he difficult to work with? » said an executive. “What will the chemistry be like with the general manager? You have to be comfortable with your quirky personality.
For an owner, Harbaugh would bring instant market value and a track record that suggests success should be on the horizon. It makes sense to be attracted to a candidate with these qualities.
It’s also critical to evaluate the entire equation by speaking with as many people as possible who have worked alongside Harbaugh over the past two decades. If there’s reason to believe he’s moved on, great, Harbaugh should be considered a priority coaching candidate.
If questions remain, the cost of winning may extend beyond the checkbook. This is a level of comfort that a homeowner and their trusted office must agree on.
And that will continue to be a key talking point as Harbaugh prepares for Monday’s Rose Bowl against Alabama and a potential national championship appearance a week later. Because when Michigan’s season is over, NFL teams will attempt to seek necessary clarity on Harbaugh’s fit with their organization — if they haven’t already started that process.
(Jim Harbaugh Photo: David Berding/Getty Images)
“The Football 100,” the definitive ranking of the 100 greatest NFL players of all time, is now on sale. Order it here.
Gn En sports