Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh will lead the No. 1 Wolverines against No. 2 Washington in the College Football Playoff National Championship on Monday, giving him a chance to cap a controversial season by winning the sport’s top prize. The matchup could also be his last with the Maize and Blue, as speculation over a jump to the NFL is once again ramping up.
This isn’t anything new, as the former San Francisco 49ers head coach has flirted with a potential return to the NFL for the past few offseasons. He interviewed for the Minnesota Vikings’ opening last year and admitted that there was an allure of trying to win a Super Bowl after losing to his brother John and the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl 57. However, he was not offered the job and told Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel that his flirtations with the NFL would not become a theme every year.
But things have changed between then and now.
Harbaugh has been at the center of two controversies surrounding the program for the last calendar year, making the Wolverines the most headlined team for both on and off-the-field reasons throughout 2023. Last January, the NCAA launched an investigation into Michigan for alleged impermissible contact with recruits during the COVID-19 dead period. In August, the program self-imposed a three-game suspension for Harbaugh to start the year in an effort to get ahead of any potential punishments levied by the NCAA.
Shortly after his return, the NCAA began investigating the Wolverines for alleged sign-stealing in what turned into the biggest scandal of the entire college football season. Wolverines staffer Connor Stalions was forced to resign as he was revealed as the central figure of an intricate off-campus scouting operation. Questions quickly turned to how much Harbaugh knew about this operation and the Big Ten ultimately suspended him for the final three games of the regular season. Some began speculating about the UM head coach bolting for the NFL before the NCAA dropped the hammer, similar to Pete Carroll leaving USC for the Seattle Seahawks right before the Trojans received their sanctions in 2010. However, initial reports by NFL Insiders Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero indicated that the league wouldn’t be a simple safe haven for the controversial coach.
And yet, his name continues to be bandied about for the pros ahead of the CFP title game. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported last Sunday that Harbaugh hired agent Don Yee, whose clientele includes Denver Broncos head coach Sean Payton as well as Tom Brady. The championship bout conveniently falls on Black Monday, the day after the end of the NFL regular season where struggling franchises begin firing their head coaches. He’s already been linked to both the Las Vegas Raiders opening and the Los Angeles Chargers opening, two teams who made in-season coaching changes. By the time the clock strikes zero at NRG Stadium in Houston on Monday, a number of other franchises could be interested in his services.
Michigan isn’t going down quietly, as it has reportedly offered Harbaugh a 10-year, $125 million contract extension, a huge commitment to the man who has the program on the verge of its first national title since 1997. However, some around the program are growing weary of the NCAA controversies and the coach’s constant flirtations with the NFL. If Harbaugh were to bolt, the Wolverines could simply keep the train rolling by promoting offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore as his successor.
So that brings us back around to the title question: will Jim Harbaugh leave for the NFL after Monday’s championship game? Personally, I lean towards the answer being yes. The head coach has already accomplished his mission of restoring his alma mater as a national powerhouse and this year will most likely be the absolute peak of his time in Ann Arbor. At 60 years old, he won’t have too many more opportunities at an NFL gig, so might as well cash in now and chase that elusive Super Bowl one last time. Both he and Michigan would get fresh starts apart with one another, although the Wolverines would still have to deal with whatever repercussions doled out by the NCAA.