by Frank Cooney

Will the real Jim Harbaugh please stand up?

January 9, 2023
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As a football coach, Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh is as subtle as a punch in the mouth. That’s not counting the failed Philly Special type trick play he conjured up on fourth and goal from the two that set the stage for the Wolverine’s loss to TCU in their semifinal playoff game.

There he was with perhaps the best offensive line over the last two years in college football and he pulls the kind of play to which an underdog might resort against superior talent.

Weird, right?

Turns out, Harbaugh often isn’t what he appears to be, or says he is. Only days ago he issued this statement through the school:

“As I stated in December, while no one knows what the future holds, I expect that I will be enthusiastically coaching Michigan in 2023. I have spoken with president Santa Ono and athletic director Warde Manuel and appreciate their support of me and our program. Our mission as Wolverines continues, and we are preparing for the 2023 season with great passion and enthusiasm. As our legendary coach Bo Schembechler said … those who stay will be champions.”

Yea, but. . .

Now there is word that he will interview with the Denver Broncos early this week as their coaching search to replace Nathaniel Hackett continues. That is according to a report Sunday by NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero.

Harbaugh just led the Wolverines, his alma mater, to their second straight berth in the College Football Playoff, but ESPN’s Pete Thamel and others have reported that the former San Francisco 49ers coach would be brought up as a candidate for NFL jobs this offseason.

Last year he seemed intent on getting a job with the Minnesota Vikings, but was left in the lurch when they signed somebody else.

And now. . .  

“The Broncos plan to interview Jim Harbaugh for their head coaching job early this week, per sources,” Pelissero wrote on Twitter. “Denver’s new owners want to swing big, and landing Harbaugh – the former 49ers and current University of Michigan coach – would be about as big as it gets.”

The Indianapolis Colts and Carolina Panthers are other NFL teams with opening at head coach that have been reported or rumored to have interest in Harbaugh. Harbaugh and Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper spoke about the team’s vacancy left by the firing of Matt Rhule, according to reports by Fox Charlotte’s Will Kunkel and The Athletic’s Joe Person.

CBS Sports’ Jonathan Jones reported Sunday that the Panthers plan to focus their search elsewhere, and Harbaugh’s side initiated the call.

It may be no coincidence that Harbaugh is sending out feelers. His Michigan program is under NCAA investigation and received a Notice of Allegations last week. The alleged recruiting violations are considered minor, but there is an accusation that Harbaugh misled the NCAA.

The Wolverines emerged as a national power in 2021 by winning the Big Ten and making the CFP for the first time. But Michigan lost CFP semifinal games to Georgia and TCU each of the last two seasons, failing to make the national championship game.

On ESPN’s College Game Day recently, Harbaugh’s strange actions were highlighted.

Said Pete Thamel :”One year after interviewing for and failing to get the Minnesota Vikings job, Jim Harbaugh said his annual dance with the NFL had ended — quote, ‘This will not be a recurring theme.’ He said last year, ‘This was a one-time thing,'” Thamel said. “Well, Rece, we’ll find out the next two weeks whether that’s the reality. Harbaugh won nearly 70% of his NFL games in San Francisco. He’s No. 6 all-time, in NFL history, by win percentage. Combine that with going 25-3 the last two years at Michigan and Jim Harbaugh has never been hotter in NFL circles.

Well, at least luke warm, considering the Vikings rejected him last year and the Panthers followed suit recently. And it is not clear that Harbaugh is the first choice of the Broncos, who already talked to Sean Payton, whose rights are still held by the New Orleans Saints, who apparently allowed the meeting after penciling out compensation, if needed.

There is history that Harbaugh can be successful in the NFL. With the 49ers, he nearly won a Super Bowl before the lights went out in No. XLVII in a loss to his brother John, head coach of the Baltimore Ravens.

The 49ers front office was a bit of a mess and Harbaugh departed the organization after the 2013. Interestingly, despite his success there it was hard to find players who seemed upset about his departure.

But the former Wolverine quarterback quickly landed at his alma mater and once again built up a winning franchise.

What’s next? Not even Harbaugh knows.

We remember him well as a college coach in San Diego and Stanford and then with the 49ers. He proved he is an outstanding coach, but had a distant, condescending relationship with the media. OK, that’s not unique, but his demeanor didn’t seem to create warm and fuzzy relationships with the front office or even many players.

I had talks with the great John Madden at the time and said Harbaugh’s days with the 49ers were numbered. Madden responded by saying “But he is a great coach.”

True enough. But it continues to be obvious that he has other traits that offset his greatest strength. Moving back to the NFL will exacerbate the situation. In college, players rotate through every three years or so. In the NFL, teams and players want a longer relationship with their head coach.

Our advice: Try to overcome the investigations and stay with Michigan, Jim. If that doesn’t work, go rebuild another college program.

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