No Shock: Harbaugh to Chargers

It was inevitable that Jim Harbaugh would return to the NFL. He gave it a shot at least three times in three years. On Wednesday, with a college national championship on his resume and the NCAA nipping at his image, Harbaugh agreed to a five-year contract with the Los Angeles Chargers.

 

The big announcement focused on a team that annually avoids success despite plenty of talent hiring a coach whose career is full of success — and baggage. He will unpack it under the glare of a dwindling, disappointed fan base in Los Angeles. Welcome back to the NFL, Jim.

 

First the upbeat news:

 

“Jim Harbaugh is football personified, and I can think of no one better to lead the Chargers forward,” owner Dean Spanos said in a statement Wednesday. “The son of a coach, brother of a coach and father of a coach who himself was coached by names like Schembechler and Ditka, for the past two decades Jim has led hundreds of men to success everywhere he’s been — as their coach. And today, Jim Harbaugh returns to the Chargers, this time as our coach. Who has it better than us?”

 

Harbaugh won a national championship in his ninth year at the University of Michigan. He came close to a Super Bowl title with the 49ers in 2012, losing to his brother, John, and the Ravens 34-31 in Super Bowl XLVII.

 

So now Jim gets a second bite of the apple, the Vince Lombardi trophy he admitted is the ultimate prize as a football coach even as he was vowing, time and time again, to remain as Michigan's coach. 

 

Michigan offered Harbaugh a six-year contract extension worth $11.5 million annually despite two pending NCAA investigations. He opted to return to the NFL, where he went 44-19-1 in four seasons with the 49ers. Harbaugh’s contract with the Chargers is for five years. Initial discussions did not settle a difference in perspective regarding how much control Harbaugh would have. The status of that item and the salary in the contract are not known, although it is believed he was seeking approximately $12 million a year.

 

So, goodbye college football. Rah!

 

“My love for Michigan, playing there and coming back to coach there, leaves a lasting impact. I’ll always be a loyal Wolverine,” Harbaugh said in a statement. “I’m remarkably fortunate to have been afforded the privilege of coaching at places where life’s journey has created strong personal connections for me.

 

“From working as an assistant coach at Western Kentucky alongside my father, Jack, and time as an assistant with the Raiders, to being a head coach at USD, Stanford, the 49ers and Michigan — each of those opportunities carried significance, each felt personal. When I played for the Chargers, the Spanos family could not have been more gracious or more welcoming. Being back here feels like home, and it’s great to see that those things haven’t changed.”

 

During his NFL playing career, Harbaugh was a quarterback for the Chargers in 1999–2000. He started 17 games.

 

As coaches in the AFC, brothers Jim and John cannot again meet in the Super Bowl, but they will play each other at least every three years and could face off in an AFC playoff game.

 

While almost everybody involved is saying all the right things now, there are those who remember that Harbaugh’s departure from the 49ers was not pretty. It involved acrimony between Harbaugh and team executives. The team tried to pass off the split as amicable, but it was not.

 

The 49ers were 8–8 season in 2014, failing to reach the playoffs for the first time in the Harbaugh era. On October 5, it was rumored that Harbaugh would not return in 2015 regardless of that season's outcome. Owner Jed York denied the claims at the time, but few close to the team believed him.

 

It was widely thought that Harbaugh, despite his success on the field, was involved in a power struggle with 49ers general manager Trent Baalke, which apparently began in 2013.

 

On December 28, 2014, the 49ers announced that they had mutually agreed to part ways with Harbaugh. York claimed Harbaugh and the team made that decision immediately after a win over the Arizona Cardinals in the final week of the regular season.

 

Harbaugh, however, later said: "I didn't leave the 49ers. I felt like the 49er hierarchy left me." He further added that the 49ers informed him that he would no longer be the 49ers coach after suffering a loss on December 14, but that he decided to remain as the team's head coach for the final two games of the season because "I wanted to finish what I started—what we started."

 

One oddity worth noting is that few 49ers players spoke up for Harbaugh as he exited or in the years since. 

 

Harbaugh left the 49ers as one of their most successful head coaches in just four years, as well as becoming the first successful NFL head coach to depart for a college team.

 

Even as he leaves Michigan with a national championship, Harbaugh again departs as a successful coach on the field who, regardless, had significant issues.

 

On August 23, 2023, Michigan announced that it was self-imposing a three-game suspension on Harbaugh for violating recruiting regulations. On November 10, the Big Ten Conference announced another three-game suspension against Harbaugh, as part of the investigation into the Michigan Wolverines football sign-stealing scandal.

 

On November 23, Michigan informed the NCAA that it would credit Harbaugh with the win–loss record from the three games to conclude the regular season. Despite the suspensions, Michigan went undefeated in the regular season, including a 30–24 victory over Ohio State. The Michigan Wolverines then went on to defeat Alabama in the Rose Bowl 27–20 and won the CFP National Championship Game on January 8, 2024, beating Washington 34–13.

 

To be clear, Harbaugh has had one foot out of Ann Arbor since 2021, as the lure of winning a Super Bowl remained strong.

 

Following the 2021 season, which saw him lead the Wolverines to a 12-2 record and CFP semifinal berth, Harbaugh interviewed with the Minnesota Vikings, before ultimately informing Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel of his intention to stay. At the time, he said flirtations with the NFL would not be a recurring issue.

 

It was the right thing to say, although few people believed it.

 

So, few were surprised the next year when Harbaugh interviewed with the Broncos for their open head-coaching position. Amid Michigan's run to the College Football Playoff, Harbaugh (twice suspended for three games in 2023) hired NFL-affiliated agent Don Yee to represent him, suggesting a move back to the NFL was imminent.

 

That came to fruition Wednesday with Harbaugh taking the Chargers' job. It's uncertain whether the timing of his move is related to his suspensions at Michigan or to ongoing NCAA investigations into Michigan's recruiting during the 2020 COVID-19 dead period, or the Wolverines' ongoing sign-stealing scandal.

 

For now the headline reads “Harbaugh is Chargers' Head Coach.” Stay tuned for status on skeletons and scandals.

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