Jim Harbaugh hasn’t closed the door on the NFL; could 2023 be the year he returns?

USA TODAY Sports

Setting aside the spin, Jim Harbaugh wanted to become the head coach of the Vikings earlier this year. And even though he has since tried to claim that his NFL ship has sailed, Harbaugh has made it clear that he has “unfinished business” at the next level.

He said it himself in September. On the brink of December, Harbaugh’s Michigan team is 12-0, after a rollicking 45-23 win at Ohio State, the school’s first win at Columbus since five days before former Michigan quarterback Tom Brady played for the first time in an NFL regular-season game.

If the window is ever going to be open for Harbaugh to return to the NFL, it will officially be open six weeks from tomorrow.

Unofficially, courtesy of the back-channel conversations that always happen, it could be open sooner than that.

“One of the things that was really kind of driving me is, you know, we were in San Francisco, we got that close to winning the Super Bowl,” Harbaugh told Gene Wojciechowski of ESPN in an interview that was televised on Labor Day weekend. “That’s always been a thing. There’s unfinished business there. But, hey, winning the national championship, [I] could be really happy with that, too. So that’s the goal. That’s the one we’re chasing.”

Indeed, even when making a 100-percent commitment to the Wolverines, Harbaugh made it clear that winning a college football national championship remains, in his mind, something less than winning a Super Bowl.

“Sure, the Super Bowl is the greatest prize in our sport,” Harbaugh told Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press in early February. “But winning a national championship. That’s pretty darn great. Let’s do that. There was a pull to the NFL because I got that close to the Super Bowl, but this was the time [to try and return.] And this is the last time. Now let’s go chase college football’s greatest prize.”

The question of whether Harbaugh would do it is hiding in plain sight, in his Michigan contract. The buyout in the first year of the deal he signed after interviewing with the Vikings is a mere $3 million.

Harbaugh wanted the Minnesota job. And even though the Vikings have put together an unexpectedly great season under coach of the year candidate Kevin O’Connell, Harbaugh took a 49ers team that had been 6-10 to the NFC Championship in his first year. The next year, he nearly won a Super Bowl.

The sense of unfinished business surely comes in part from the fact that he lost that Super Bowl to his brother, John.

It won’t be clear whether Harbaugh will have a path back to the NFL until all vacancies for the next hiring cycle are known. The Panthers and Colts jobs will be open. Panthers owner David Tepper covets a great head coach (and a great quarterback). And if Colts owner Jim Irsay wants a former player to coach the team, Harbaugh is slightly more proven than interim coach Jeff Saturday.

Other jobs will be open. They always are. Teams to watch include the Browns (they tried to trade for Harbaugh in early 2014), the Broncos, the Texans, the Chargers, the Cardinals.

Maybe there will be a job that becomes open simply because Harbaugh is available and interested. Maybe the Saints. Maybe the Buccaneers. Maybe there will be a surprise resignation/retirement that causes the team to pivot to Harbaugh. Maybe a team that perennially knocks on the door decides to roll the dice on someone like Harbaugh to kick it in.

Regardless, it seems clear (at least to me) that he wants back in. And it’s entirely possible that the Minnesota situation didn’t work because the organization wanted a coach who, from a personality standpoint, would be the exact opposite of former head coach Mike Zimmer.

Harbaugh is a proven commodity. Every year, NFL teams entrust the coaching job to a coin flip as to whether a coordinator is ready and able to become a head coach. Sometimes, it works. Sometimes, it doesn’t. With Jim Harbaugh, there’s no coin to be flipped.

30 responses to “Jim Harbaugh hasn’t closed the door on the NFL; could 2023 be the year he returns?

  1. This will likely be part of the pendulum swing in the NFL.

    Back when Harbaugh was at the Niners, Hawks and Niners battled with strong running games, strong defenses and efficient passing.

    Then it swung to “we need a $50M QB and have to pass 40 times a game”.

    I think the Hawks will make teams second guess whether overpaying for a QB is the best road to success.

  2. Harbaugh would be a top 10 coach in the NFL immediately upon being hired. Just like his brother.

  3. I’m a M fan but i dont care for Hairballs coaching style. Ya he has done well the past two years and winning is everything but I like a balanced offense and to be a running team first and passing team third, that doesnt work when your nemesis stops the run.
    I would like to see him go to the NFL, like last year. M could find a new HC with the ability to recruit.

  4. raiderfanpete says:
    November 26, 2022 at 10:38 pm
    Maybe the Raiders?

    Not a bad idea but I dont think they can afford what he would be asking. He is making big money at M

  5. higheriqthanyou says:
    November 26, 2022 at 10:29 pm
    This will likely be part of the pendulum swing in the NFL.

    Back when Harbaugh was at the Niners, Hawks and Niners battled with strong running games, strong defenses and efficient passing.

    Then it swung to “we need a $50M QB and have to pass 40 times a game”.

    I think the Hawks will make teams second guess whether overpaying for a QB is the best road to success.
    __________________________________________

    I think the hawks are a 6-4 team that may not even make the playoffs. Let’s slow down on them revolutionizing the NFL.

  6. I don’t think losing a Super Bowl to my brother would drive me at all. Actually, John;s father has a son who won a SB. John has a brother that won a SB. If I were to lose one, making 2 of the most important people in my life happy, would seriously soften the blow.

  7. I think Harbaugh wants to stay at Michigan, and any NFL rumors are just for negotiating purposes. Harbaugh wouldn’t leave a campus like the University of Michigan for a job working for the typical NFL owner who knows zilch about football but insist on calling the shots. Or get hired by a team with an incompetent GM. Jim’s brother John is one of the fortunate few NFL coaches who actually work for a decent owner. Harbaugh also understands history, and the Michigan head coaching job is not a steppingstone job. Bo Schembechler could have left Michigan for just about any NFL job but chose to stay at Michigan for all those years. Jim understands college football tradition. I think he’s exactly where he wants to be. On the Michigan sidelines beating Ohio State. It just doesn’t get any better than that.

  8. higheriqthanyou says:
    November 26, 2022 at 10:29 pm
    This will likely be part of the pendulum swing in the NFL.

    Back when Harbaugh was at the Niners, Hawks and Niners battled with strong running games, strong defenses and efficient passing.

    Then it swung to “we need a $50M QB and have to pass 40 times a game”.

    I think the Hawks will make teams second guess whether overpaying for a QB is the best road to success.

    813Rate This
    ———————-
    Seahawks and Geno Smith is probably more lucky than revolutionary, or at least that’s how it’ll be viewed. At the very least it has to work more than once for it to even be considered.

  9. He’s gonna try and beat out Sean Peyton for the LA Chargers job. They both want to coach Herbert….

  10. Colts would make sense- that team has so much potential if they landed a qb that isn’t “done.”

    If SF can’t secure Jimmy G, that would be a great destination.

    Also, Harbaugh’s near miraculous run as the Colt’s qb was fun to watch…he’s already a hero there.

  11. Five or six NFL head coaching jobs will be available each year, it is in the nature of the sport – not all teams can meet the expectations of their owners and the fan base. Aging owners will probably become more desperate with their decisions “i want to win a superbowl” A successful college coach will almost always be in the mix for a vacancy, the big question is how bad does he want it?

  12. I don’t care for Michigan, but man I like Harbaugh. I hope he wins a title.

    I’d love to have him in Denver, though, too. He wouldn’t put up with Russell’s BS, and the team would be tough as nails.

  13. Jim Harbaugh was rebuffed by the Vikings last year, possibly because his coaching style was not too different from that of Mike Zimmer…and they are now exceeding a lot of expectations. If the NFL owners are paying attention to that, Harbaugh will likely eith

  14. Early in the offseason, just about everyone was linking Harbaugh with the Raiders. Then Davis royally fumbled the ball and got the wrong coach.

  15. Harbaugh is a throw-back style coach who would have to blend in with an analytics front office no matter where he goes. I could just see someone in the booth telling what the best play would be to run in a certain situation. Oh my…

  16. People forget that Harbaugh left the 9ers in a state of ruin. Yeah, they went to a SB and nearly won it, but by the time he left the players had tuned out him and his 24-7 high intensity approach. He had made enemies in the locker room and around the league,

    In college, with players staying only 4 years at the most, his style doesn’t wear so thin,

    But in the pros? Not so much. Buyer beware.

  17. The Chargers would be the best fit. I could see him with the Raiders but is Davis willing to pay what it will take to get him? Doubtful. Then there is the Broncos. I would root for him in any of those situations. But the Colts? Hell no. I want Irsay to lose every game.

  18. Jim Harbaugh never intended an NFL head coaching comeback,he just used the perceived negotiations with the Minnesota Vikings as a bargaining chip to get an extension out of Michigan.

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