Jim Harbaugh just beat Ohio State and took Michigan to the College Football Playoff. But there may never be a better time for him to return to the NFL.
Not many head coaches have more leverage than Jim Harbaugh has right now.
Just 38 days after his Michigan Wolverines finally beat arch-nemesis Ohio State for the first time since 2011 and reached the College Football Playoff for the first time ever, The Athletic reported that Harbaugh could be ready to come back to the NFL after seven seasons in Ann Arbor.
The report mentions potential options like the Las Vegas Raiders, where interim coach Rich Bissachia became the first interim coach ever to reach the playoffs, and the Chicago Bears, where Matt Nagy was just let go. There’s also a job opening in Jacksonville, with the allure of Trevor Lawrence likely still appealing despite a rough rookie season. There are also new openings thanks to NFL head coaching firings with the Minnesota Vikings, Denver Broncos and Miami Dolphins. All would love someone with Harbaugh’s ability and pedigree.
But here’s the real question: Why should the 58-year-old stay at Michigan?
Is it to finish what he started after a CFP blowout loss to Georgia on Friday? To finally bring a national championship to his alma mater after helping it win the Big Ten for the first time in 17 years? Because there’s so much loyalty in college football? Because he bleeds maize and blue?
It’s definitely not his contract, a reported five-year, $21 million deal through 2025 with incentives that could allow him to make as much as $7.576 million in 2022 and $7.681 million in 2023 — though it should be noted that he was nice enough to donate the incentive money he made this year to athletic department staffers impacted by the pandemic. Especially not when his in-state counterpart Mel Tucker at Michigan State, he of the 18-14 career record as a college head coach, landed a 10-year, $95 million deal just after Harbaugh’s huge win over the Buckeyes.
If Harbaugh can get $100 million-plus out of Michigan, which he should, and he wants to stay, more power to him. But he could easily leave Ann Arbor and use this leverage to get a monster deal with an NFL team, assuming he wants to scratch the itch of returning to pro football.
For those of you who need a brief refresher, he was a really good head coach with the San Francisco 49ers. He went 44-19-1 in four seasons with the Niners from 2011-14, reaching the NFC championship game in his first season with Alex Smith, then reaching and nearly winning the Super Bowl in 2012 after replacing Smith with a young quarterback named Colin Kaepernick. He then reached the conference title game again in 2013, making him the first NFL head coach to ever reach the conference championship game in each of his first three seasons. After that, a power struggle with San Francisco management and an 8-8 season led to his ouster.
It took the Niners five seasons to get back to the playoffs after getting rid of Harbaugh.
NFL teams that look at Harbaugh’s track record and see the success he had with Smith and Kaepernick could quite plausibly believe that he can take their team deep into the playoffs, too. And coaches who have reached the Super Bowl are generally paid quite well. There are currently 10 current head coaches who have appeared in the Super Bowl, and here’s how much they reportedly make per year.
- Bill Belichick: $12.5 million
- Pete Carroll: $11 million
- Sean Payton: $9.8 million
- John Harbaugh: $9 million
- Sean McVay: $8.5 million
- Mike Tomlin: $8 million
- Andy Reid: $8 million
- Bruce Arians: $8 million
- Ron Rivera: $7 million
- Mike McCarthy: $4 million
That’s an average of $8.58 million, with McCarthy bringing down the average by $500,000. If Matt Rhule just got $8.5 million per season from Carolina to leave Baylor, Harbaugh should command at least $9-10 million per season. And unless Michigan gives him Tucker money or even Jon Gruden money, the NFL has what college football cannot provide.
The earliest the College Football Playoff could expand is 2024, otherwise we won’t see it until 2026. It was a long road for Michigan to even get to the CFP, only to get stomped by an SEC team, as that conference seems to dominate every year anyway.
Four years with the 49ers proved that Harbaugh is a really, really good NFL head coach. It’s where he belongs. For Jim Harbaugh, there won’t be a better time to leave Michigan than right now.
He should take full advantage.