Will Jim Harbaugh return to the NFL? Michigan’s coach faces a decision after winning the national championship

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s flirtations with the NFL have been a staple of the college football offseason news cycle. Now that the athletic calendar turns to the 2024 season after Michigan’s A 34-13 win against Washington in the College Football Playoff National Championship on Monday, those conversations are sure to heat up again.

In fact, they have already started. Multiple teams have called over the past few weeks to gather information on Harbaugh, according to NFL.com, which has updated prospect lists while evaluating various open positions.

It’s no surprise that professional teams would covet Harbaugh’s services. He steadily built Michigan back into a powerhouse program with a 40-3 record over the past three years. The Wolverines haven’t lost a regular season game since 2021, en route to three straight Big Ten titles while making each of the last three College Football Playoff appearances.

He’s already a proven winner at the NFL level as well, setting himself apart from other college football coaches looking to test the pro waters and even most NFL assistants they could see. As coach of the San Francisco 49ers from 2011-14, Harbaugh compiled a 44-19 record with two NFC West titles and an appearance in Super Bowl 47.

But after leading Michigan to the top of the mountain for the first time since the BCS era began, was Harbaugh really going to leave now? Here’s a breakdown of the key factors that go into a pending decision.

Contract extension on the table

Michigan is already working hard to retain Harbaugh’s services. The according to university reports presented Harbaugh with a contract extension that would make him the highest-paid coach in sports, promising a salary of $125 million spread over 10 years. That would surpass Clemson coach Dabo Swinney’s 10-year, $115 million deal as the largest in college football history.

“It’s a decision for him,” Michigan president Santa Ono said before Monday’s national title game. according to The Detroit News. “As you know, we have made it very clear that we want him to stay and I very much hope so.

It would also increase Harbaugh’s salary by almost $5 million per year (he made $7.6 million for his services in 2023). But there’s a catch: The new deal will prevent him from pursuing any NFL coaching jobs through the 2024 season.

The fact that Harbaugh hasn’t floated such a lucrative offer seems like a clear indication that he’s at least keeping his options open. But there is more to it than that. Despite the program’s recent success, this is a pivotal offseason for Michigan football.

The Wolverines could lose a large number of important contributors. Among the possibilities are top receivers Roman Wilson and Cornelius Johnson (not eligible), running back Blake Corum, who holds the program records for season and career rushing touchdowns, five offensive linemen with starting experience and several defensive starters . Quarterback JJ McCarthy is considered a legitimate NFL prospect and could declare early for the NFL Draft.

Even with the advent of the transfer portal and Michigan’s recent track record of excellent player development, that’s a mountain of production to replace. Harbaugh knows his coaching staff could suffer if Michigan takes any kind of step back next season.

On top of that, Harbaugh and Michigan are under the NCAA’s crosshairs due to various off-the-field scandals hanging over the program in 2023. Harbaugh was suspended on two separate occasions during the regular season, causing him to miss a total of six games. In December, Michigan received notice of allegations related to illegal recruiting practices during the COVID-19 pandemic. The NCAA is also investigating Michigan for an alleged sign-stealing operation orchestrated by former recruiting officer Connor Stallions. Any penalties handed down by the NCAA will not follow Harbaugh to the NFL, but could seriously hinder his ability to perform at Michigan.

Interesting agent hire

ESPN reported on Dec. 31 that Harbaugh has hired agent Don Yee, who has spent his career representing some big names in the NFL. His client list includes the likes of Denver Broncos coach Sean Payton and Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

And … Tom Brady.

Brady and Yee’s partnership began when Brady was a senior at Michigan. Brady retained Yee’s services throughout his storied 20-year NFL career. Now a deal is on the table for Brady to become a minority owner of the Raiders, who fired coach Josh McDaniels in October and are in the process of finding a replacement. There was some traction between Harbaugh — whose coaching career began as an assistant with the Raiders from 2002-03 — and Las Vegas in 2022 before the Raiders opted to go with McDaniels.

Is there a suitable one?

Harbaugh has an advantage over most other candidates. The NFL recently sent updated anti-tampering policy to hire head coaches. Among other changes, it prohibits in-person interviews of coaches employed by an NFL team unless express permission is given by that team. Harbaugh is free to talk to whomever he wants without restriction after Michigan’s 2023 season ends.

Las Vegas, given its ties to Harbaugh, may have talks with the Michigan coach, NFL.com reports. But that’s not all. Harbaugh’s name has also been linked to the Los Angeles Chargers since they decided to move on from Brandon Staley in mid-December.

A move back to the West Coast could make a lot of sense. Harbaugh was a quarterback for the San Diego-based Chargers from 1999-2000 and returned to the area in 2004 at the University of San Diego. He was hired by Stanford in 2007 and made the jump to the 49ers in 2011. Including his time with the former Oakland Raiders, Harbaugh spent the first 13 years of his coaching career in the state of California. Although he moved around a lot as a kid, following his father Jack throughout his coaching career, Harbaugh was playing quarterback at Palo Alto High School in California when he committed to Michigan in 1981.

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