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.