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Jim Harbaugh leaves Michigan with good foundation, unlike Brian Kelly and Lincoln Riley exits

Bright days can still be ahead for the Michigan program.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Melanie Maxwell / USA TODAY NETWORK

A new era is upon the Michigan Wolverines — the Sherrone Moore era. And the Moore era will be an extension of the Jim Harbaugh era.

Harbaugh departed to become the head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers last week all while putting the program in a position to succeed moving forward. Harbaugh’s departure comes after Michigan just won a national championship and the program has a solid foundation.

“Coach, love ya,” Moore said, mentioning Harbaugh at his introductory press conference. “Got your back, I’m going to continue this the right way.”

Harbaugh has been adamant for quite some time that Moore is a rising star in the coaching profession and bound to be a head coach, and now he is. Moore was 4-0 this season as interim head coach when Harbaugh was serving suspensions. Moore was at the helm for key wins against Penn State and Ohio State and showed he can win at the highest of stages. Harbaugh passing the torch to Moore, someone Harbaugh believes in and trusts, a coach the players seem to love, lessens any negative impacts related to Harbaugh’s departure. Unlike Alabama and Washington who both had head coaching vacancies spring up due to Nick Saban’s retirement at Alabama and Washington’s Kalen DeBoer replacing Saban, Michigan hasn’t had a mass exodus via the transfer portal like they have. And that has everything to do with the foundation and tone Harbaugh set at Michigan.

Sure, former Michigan strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert is leaving with Harbaugh, and reportedly defensive coordinator Jesse Minter and special teams coordinator/safeties coach Jay Harbaugh are as well. However, Harbaugh’s winning culture as well as most of the Michigan staff will be staying in Ann Arbor long into Harbaugh’s tenure with the Chargers.

Harbaugh leaving for the NFL after a national championship wasn’t the least bit surprising. He accomplished the biggest thing he could have for the Wolverines, bringing them their first outright national championship since 1948. Harbaugh, now 60, has been very clear about his love for the NFL.

  • “It was tough,” Harbaugh said. “I was torn, my wife, kids. I love Michigan. I love the NFL, too. And there’s no Lombardi Trophy in college football,” Harbaugh said at the Chiefs vs. Ravens AFC Championship Game on Sunday. “And I got so many sands left in the hourglass. And I wanna take a crack at that.”
  • “Jim has always been extremely upfront with his communication regarding NFL opportunities and has been helpful with this transition in leadership,” Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel said last week.

Harbaugh being helpful with the transition isn’t standard practice in college football, what is commonplace is a coach exiting and burning bridges on their way out.

For example, weeks before Brian Kelly departed Notre Dame for LSU, he denied rumors he had any interest in leaving Notre Dame.

“No,” Kelly said. “I mean, look, I think Mike Tomlin had the best line, right? Unless the fairy godmother comes by with that $250 million check, my wife would want to take a look at that first. I’d have to run it by her.”

Then Kelly’s players were shocked to see news on social media that Kelly was taking the LSU job — Kelly called a team meeting the next morning for 7 A.M. The Athletic’s Pete Sampson reported “Kelly’s address to the team lasted less than two minutes, then he turned around and walked out. He did not take questions from the players.”

Then there’s Lincoln Riley, who left Oklahoma via plane in the middle of the night to Los Angeles to become USC’s next head coach in November of 2021. Multiple Oklahoma staff members made the plane trip with Riley and became part of his USC staff.

Riley then landed three Oklahoma players in the transfer portal, including quarterback Caleb Williams. Williams will likely be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. Oklahoma would go on to have an abysmal 2022 season after Riley’s departure, going 6-7.

The contrast between Harbaugh’s departure to the route Riley and Kelly exited their respective programs couldn’t be more different. No transition is easy, and Sherrone Moore will have obstacles to deal with in the ever-changing landscape of college sports, but he and the Wolverines have a good shot at doing well in 2024. They have star talent returning in running back Donovan Edwards, tight end Colston Loveland, great defensive linemen such as Mason Graham and Kenneth Grant, and arguably the best cornerback in the nation in Will Johnson. There’s plenty of returning talent beyond those names, and the team will take great pride in being reigning national champions and try to live up to that standard.

Harbaugh didn’t leave when the going got tough in 2020 after a 2-4 season, he dug down and Michigan’s won the last three games against Ohio State, has three consecutive Big Ten Championships and College Football Playoff appearances along with a national championship. Every great film has to come to an end, and the endearing impact a film has, what sticks with the audience, is what happens in the final act. Harbaugh’s final act at Michigan was his finest and he’ll be remembered as someone who restored greatness at the program.

Harbaugh’s just the fifth coach in the AP poll era (since 1936) to leave a program immediately after winning the national championship, and the other four (Tom Osborne, Howard Schnellenberger, Johnny Majors, Bernie Bierman) didn’t take an NFL job as Harbaugh did. Harbaugh’s departure is truly different than any other that’s occurred in all the decades of college football and should be judged differently too. Harbaugh gave Michigan the past decade of his life, now he’s where Michigan players hope to be soon — the NFL. Michigan and Harbaugh should both be able to thrive in their time apart.