A long time ago, Jim Harbaugh almost drowned his older brother, John.
They were college aged and vacationing with their family in Amelia Island, Florida. The brothers were on the beach, and being young men and brothers and especially competitive Harbaughs, of course they started wrestling in the surf.
It was then that John discovered something terrifying just as his younger brother started to hold his head under the water. Jim, now a strapping 6-foot-3 quarterback at Michigan, had become much stronger than he was. Jim had grown fully into manhood, a piece of “twisted, blue steel,” John remembered, who wasn’t letting his older brother come up for air.
This, John thought, was how it was going to end. In the shallow surf on a family vacation.
Years later, shortly after Jim became Michigan’s football coach, John recounted this story to a small group of reporters after a high school coaching clinic at Crisler Center. The Harbaugh boys and their father, Jack, were telling old family stories.
When John, the Baltimore Ravens’ head coach, told the story of his near demise, there was a twinkle in Jim’s eye and a smile crawled over his face. It was about more than reveling in a fun story about beating up his older brother. It was the phrase John had used. “Twisted, blue steel.” Jim smiled as he repeated it slowly and pensively to himself. “I’m going to tell my wife about that,” he said, as his smile broadened.
Yes, Jim Harbaugh enjoyed the memory of having bested his brother in a beachside battle decades earlier. But it was the respect that John gave him in that moment that seemed to resonate most. The respect that came with that description — twisted, blue steel — served as an acknowledgement of who Harbaugh had become, what he had done and what he was capable of doing, and it seemed to stir something inside of him.
I have no idea what the future holds for Harbaugh, with rumors running rampant about his possible departure for the NFL. There have been no reports about him officially interviewing for any jobs and Profootballtalk.com reported Friday, citing a source with knowledge of the situation, that no teams had reported to the league office an interview with Harbaugh, which is required by NFL rules.
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There have been rumors about Harbaugh leaving Michigan seemingly every year during the NFL’s hiring cycle. But this year, considering Harbaugh’s fascinating season at Michigan, those rumors seem more plausible than ever.
Whatever happens, I think much of it will be based on the respect Harbaugh feels he is being shown — or not shown — at Michigan or in the NFL courting process. So here are some pros and cons for why Harbaugh should stay at Michigan or leave for the NFL.
Stay at Michigan
This makes the most sense and it’s probably the most likely.
Plainly put, Harbaugh is currently the King of Ann Arbor after leading U-M to a cathartic drubbing of Ohio State, a Big Ten title and a spot in the College Football Playoff. He has bought himself years of goodwill from fans, alumni and the administration after such a spectacular 12-2 season. The only things missing were a win against Michigan State and a bowl victory, to say nothing of being two wins away from a national championship.
If you take everything off the table — the past disappoints and last year’s humbling pay cut of nearly 50%> to about $4 million in base salary — and we’re strictly talking about football, I think Harbaugh would want to continue what he started this year. Imagine all the effort it took to turn a 2-4 team into a championship-caliber squad, and then walking away from that.
If Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel is smart, he’s busy reworking Harbaugh’s contract right now. What would happen to Manuel and the rest of the athletic department power brokers if they simply stand pat or wait to counter an NFL offer and lose the coach who just took them to the CFP, only a few months after two MSU alumni came up with a way to give Mel Tucker a $95-million, 10-year contract extension?
Now imagine the opposite: Manuel swings a restructured deal for Harbaugh that locks him up for a decade and he gets the ensuing celebration photo op at the announcement. Manuel’s a hero and everyone enjoys what seems like the most obvious choice.
Harbaugh’s stock has never been higher. But with that comes a bar that has been equally raised to new heights. U-M had a great season, but it’s losing its best players to the NFL in defensive ends Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, two likely first-round picks. And even with that talent, Michigan got stomped by Georgia in the Orange Bowl.
It’s going to be very hard to replicate this season’s success, even with a favorable 2022 schedule that includes home games against Penn State and MSU, balanced against road game at Iowa and Ohio State.
That doesn’t mean Harbaugh can’t gear up for another run at the Big Ten title and the CFP in the next two or three years. He built enough trust and goodwill capital this season to earn that patience from fans and his bosses — but he must return to the CFP at some point.
Of course, Harbaugh knows that even if he does get to the CFP, there are barriers to his success that are beyond his control, thanks to college football’s highly biased ranking system, its biased playoff determined by a committee that probably features an East German judge and even the CFP’s broadcast network, which has a strong rooting interest in one conference.
The SEC is a great conference that typically has a vast talent discrepancy between its elite teams and everyone else in the country. But trying to out-recruit that conference to overcome that talent deficiency is an unlikely path to success for everyone else.
Harbaugh could have a fantastic end to his tenure at Michigan, regularly beating Ohio State and MSU and winning several more Big Ten titles. But would anyone be surprised if he never wins a national title, thanks in part to the vicissitudes of college football and its changing landscape?
We don’t really know what Harbaugh’s relationship is like with Manuel and the administration. But two things about their relationship stuck out to me. When Manuel discussed Harbaugh’s extension in March, he said the goal remained as simple as “win,” and that the extension, while being program-friendly, was “not a short-term play for me.”
That means Manuel offered the extension as some form of belief in Harbaugh, provided he wins. Harbaugh validated that belief by winning big immediately, which means he has all the right to demand a better contract. If U-M doesn’t meet his terms now, when would Harbaugh be in a better position with more leverage to be rewarded for his success?
Something else that caught my interest about Harbaugh’s relationship with U-M and possibly Manuel was when he announced the donation of all his playoff bonus money, $2 million in total, to athletic department employs who took pay cuts during the pandemic. When he was asked before the Orange Bowl what he thought of taking his big pay cut before the season, he said: “Didn’t really mean anything to me. It’s just money. Big deal.”
But I think the subtext of saying “it’s just money,” means there things that are more important to Harbaugh, already a multimillionaire. Things like respect, and the respect contractual money signifies. The most obvious sign of that respect Michigan can show Harbaugh right now is a fat new contract.
Go to the NFL
I’m almost uniformly against college coaches leaving for the NFL because the two jobs are so disparate. College is about recruiting and procuring elite talent. The NFL is about finding an elite quarterback, maximizing similar talent and making less than a handful of key plays that determine each game.
But Harbaugh is a unique case. Unlike college-to-pro flameouts like Urban Meyer, Nick Saban and countless others, Harbaugh has already had great success in the NFL. He was 44-19-1 with the San Francisco 49ers from 2011-14 and took them to the NFC championship three out of four seasons and to the Super Bowl in his second year.
Harbaugh's own success as an NFL player helped his tenure at the Niners because it helped him understand the realities of dealing with professional grown men and navigating a sometimes treacherous business hierarchy. He also put together a good staff and had very good quarterbacks in Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick.
Despite what former 49ers running back Brandon Jacobs might think, Harbaugh knows football. If you’ve never met Harbaugh, he’s intense and impressive. Because of his deep roots in the NFL, Harbaugh also could put together a strong staff quickly. All that bodes well for Harbaugh in the hiring process when he’s meeting with team owners and presidents.
Which team owner wouldn’t want to introduce a coach who just qualified for the CFP and reached the Super Bowl as their next coach? But that should come at a price, and I’m not talking about money. Harbaugh should have roster control if he goes to the NFL, eliminating the issue of a power struggle with the front office.
Much of this will depend on how heavily Harbaugh is courted by NFL teams. Maybe he should try vacationing in Cabo, where I hear some unbelievably coincidental meetings tend to happen.
Look, everyone wants to be wanted, and it would be hard to blame Harbaugh for leaving Michigan. He couldn’t be faulted for wanting to capitalize on this past season and see if he could finish what he started in the NFL.
Don’t go to the NFL
It’s impossible to know how much Harbaugh’s lone head coaching experience with the 49ers might have soured him on returning to the NFL. Certainly in his brother and the Ravens, he has a great example of how a successful and well-functioning franchise should be run.
But Harbaugh’s time in San Francisco was a tragedy, when you consider his potential. Just think about those poor NFL fans of some of the historically bad teams like the Jets, Jaguars, Browns or Lions and what they would have given for a coach who reached three conference championships and a Super Bowl in his first three seasons.
Imagine how toxic things must have been with the Niners after Harbaugh’s final season. After he went 8-8 in 2014, CEO Jed York tried to portray the parting as mutual, which Harbaugh gladly debunked. “I didn't leave the 49ers. The 49ers hierarchy left me,” he told Bay Area sportswriter Tim Kawakami shortly after taking the U-M job.
That’s the NFL, though, where few coaches get to go out on their terms and eventually wear out their welcome. Even Vince Lombardi finished his career in Washington. Harbaugh is no Lombardi, but he does have a similarly intense personality. He’s also an acquired taste, which can make it difficult for him to function as fan- and media-friendly face of a franchise.
Then there are the two realities of the NFL that make keeping a job extremely difficult. Every successful team needs an elite quarterback. And even if you have one, if he doesn’t stay healthy, your chances of winning are low. In college, coaches can win for years with the right undersized quarterback who simply fits their system.
The second reality is that it’s difficult to win in the NFL, as Meyer and Saban could tell you. In fact, Meyer lamented the challenge of parity in the NFL when he said, “It’s Alabama every week.” You don’t get to pick your schedule and load up on cupcakes at home.
Most coaches love a challenge. It’s what got them where they are. But Harbaugh needs to think hard about his next challenge and whether he wants that to come in a highly fickle and transitory pro league like the NFL, or if he wants to work for the next decade to try to achieve a legacy as one of the best coaches in Michigan football history.
Contact Carlos Monarrez at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.
Source : https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/ncaaf/bigten/2022/01/16/should-jim-harbaugh-stay-michigan-football-leave-nfl/6548384001/3613