A recent ESPN article set out to predict the next three seasons of NFL headlines. Congratulations Dallas Cowboys fans, you’re going to win a Super Bowl. Russell Wilson, congrats on becoming the highest paid quarterback in the league. Bengals fans, sorry, Marvin Lewis isn’t going anywhere. And Michigan fans, prepare for life without Jim Harbaugh. The allure of the NFL and the opportunity to coach Ryan Tannehill, Danny Amendola and the rest of the Miami Dolphins is going to be too enticing for Harbaugh to ignore, says Dan Graziano.
This is a common thought amongst many national analysts and many regional analysts that devote most of their time to the NFL. Back in 2015 while many national writers were linking Harbaugh to the Oakland Raiders, college writers and bloggers covering the Big Ten and Wolverines specifically were ahead in factually reporting the discussions between Harbaugh and his alma mater (“Oakland is still in play” has since become a meme mocking the bad national reporting during the hiring saga). That line of thinking, that the NFL must be his first choice, hasn’t really gone away in the national media.
It’s easy to see why many assume the NFL is where Harbaugh belongs. He almost won a Super Bowl in San Francisco. The NFL is King. Harbaugh is an ultra competitive human being and it only makes sense for him to “attack each day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind” at the very highest level of the sport. But people have forgotten just how tenuous things were in San Francisco at the end of his 4 year tenure. It was no secret that his relationship with ownership had soured. Many of the perceived “issues” with his personality that ownership had grown tired of are better suited for the college game.
He’s known to be demanding. He often questions the status quo. He enjoys being in charge of every aspect of his football team. He likes being in the spotlight. In college football, coaching players for 3-4 years is more conducive to his demanding style. His demands carry more weight with 18-21 year old kids looking to make the leap to the NFL than they ever would with millionaires backed by a quality players union. At Michigan, Athletic Director Warde Manuel has wisely given Harbaugh the full control of the team that he desires. He hasn’t behaved like previous AD Dave Brandon, who sat in on film sessions with coordinators in the past. In terms of being in the spotlight, college coaches are the stars of their programs. Nick Saban is Alabama Football. Urban Meyer is Ohio State. Dabo Swinney is Clemson. Bill Belichick might be 1B on the Patriots behind 1A Tom Brady, but no other NFL coach is the face of their team the way college coaches are.
Lastly, his competitive nature that was touched on earlier, does not align with any prediction of him leaving Ann Arbor in the next three years. The fan base is split on if the results Harbaugh has brought so far have met reasonable expectations. Harbaugh himself is certainly not content with the results to date. He hasn’t beat Urban yet, he’s beat Michigan State once, he hasn’t made a Big Ten Championship Game, Rose Bowl, or College Football Playoff. The idea that he would leave his alma mater without reaching those heights once, let alone multiple times and reestablishing the year to year championship prominence of the program seems unlikely.
Harbaugh to the NFL rumors are likely to persist for the rest of his tenure at Michigan, however long that may be. But there are reasons to believe his stay in Ann Arbor will last a long time (we haven’t even talked about the money top college coaches are making in the current climate). Despite what some predictions might say, the chances of him taking an NFL job in the next three seasons are somewhere between slim and none.