Jim Harbaugh became the head football coach of the Michigan Wolverines in late December 2014 after what had been a mostly inept seven years with the program that preceded him. The Wolverines were able to nab their home run hire in near-cosmic fashion for the alum to be pulled from the NFL, where he had been to a trio of NFC title games and came a goal-line stand away from potentially winning a Super Bowl.
Fast forward five years and Harbaugh is 47-18 on the job at Michigan with three ten-win seasons, a nine-win campaign and an 8-5 year in 2017 as what is on the resume so far. The closest they have come to a Big Ten title is “tying” for the East division in 2018, though Ohio State emphatically took the crown from them on the last week of the season, again.
Still, the program is in stable hands compared to what it was before he got there, but what if he never made it to Michigan at all after Brady Hoke was fired? Here were some of the other candidates mentioned for the job should the program’s white whale candidate had fallen through.
You will notice the grass was not greener on the other side here, either.
David Cutcliffe, head coach, Duke
We have to start with the most notable name to “turn down the job,” at least per longtime NFL personnel man Gil Brandt in a now-famous deleted tweet that read the following:
There was never any contact between Michigan and Cutcliffe, who has not won more than eight games in a season at Duke since 2014 and is 116-108 overall in his head coaching career. He’ll always be a confidant of the Manning family, though.
Les Miles, head coach LSU
Miles very nearly replaced Lloyd Carr in 2007 and his name again resurfaced as a potential fit for the job in 2010 and 2014 in the subsequent searches. Miles — despite a 114-34 record at LSU — was fired four games into the 2016 season and went three seasons between head coaching jobs, eventually landing at Kansas in 2019. The Jayhawks went 3-9 in his first year on the job. Miles was 61-years-old by the time the Michigan job was open yet again in 2014 and he probably was never much of a fit given his age and the thought that his tactics were a bit dated, especially offensively.
Butch Jones, head coach, Tennessee
Jones was never a candidate at Michigan and was 12-13 at Tennessee in two seasons there when the Michigan job came open. Given his ties to the state of Michigan, some drew that parallel to add a name to the list. The only person who ever really preferred Jones to Harbaugh was Marcus Ray.
Jones would coach another three seasons at Tennessee and finish with a record of 34-27 before being fired in 2017. He has yet to take on another head coaching job and has been on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama.
David Shaw, head coach, Stanford
The thought among some fans was that if the Wolverines could not land Harbaugh, they would just go after the next closest thing. Shaw replaced Harbaugh at Stanford and won 11-plus games in four of his first five seasons in charge and followed it up with a 10-3 campaign in 2016. They have struggled a bit the last few years, finishing third or worst in the Pac-12 North in three of the last four seasons. The Cardinal are coming off a 4-8 season in 2019.
Steve Addazio, head coach, Boston College
At the time, Addazio was 14-12 at Boston College in two seasons and seen as a potential up-and-comer in the profession. He would remain there for another five seasons and finish with a record of 44-44 overall and was fired in 2019. He is entering his first season as the head coach of Colorado State.
Mike Gundy, head coach, Oklahoma State
Gundy and his tremendous mullet might be the most qualified of the candidates on the list given success at the college level, but was never really all that realistic of an option considering he is an Oklahoma State alum. Add in the fact that his teams have lost at least three games in every season since going 12-1 in 2011 and Michigan is, at best, in the same spot they are right now.
Tom Herman, offensive coordinator, Ohio State
Full disclosure here: Herman was my favorite non-Harbaugh candidate. At the time, he had not held a head coaching job yet and was coming off of coordinating a national championship offense at Ohio State. Michigan hired Bo Schembechler from the Woody Hayes coaching tree, so there was precedent for it, right? Herman would go on to take the head coaching job at Houston and go 13-1 in his first season and 9-3 the next year in 2016, eventually earning the job at the University of Texas. He is still working on getting things off the ground there and has a 25-15 record after three years, including a 10-4 season that ended in a Sugar Bowl win in 2018.
Greg Schiano, unemployed
Schiano, for whatever reason, was heralded for years for going 68-67 at Rutgers (which looking back, sure, build him a statue for that), but had not coached anywhere since 2013 when he was fired after two seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He went another five years without a job before Rutgers hired him back for the 2020 season.
Dan Mullen, head coach, Mississippi State
Of all the candidates on here, this might have been the guy if you could have pulled him out of the SEC. Mullen was a steadying presence in Starkville and a former offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer at Florida, but just needed a chance to coach at a bigger destination. He was hired at Florida in 2018 and has a 21-5 record in two seasons on the job with two bowl wins and two second place finishes in the East. There is a huge roadblock in the division with the emergence of Georgia over the last few seasons, though.
Pat Fitzgerald, head coach, Northwestern
Fitzgerald has always felt like a guy that might thrive in a program that allows him to and has been solid at Northwestern, but was coming off back-to-back 5-7 seasons and some believe he had already turned down Michigan during the search that ended with Hoke. He is still at Northwestern and has continued the cycle of sucking one year and having a good squad the following season time and time again. They are coming off of a 3-9 season in 2019.
Jim McElwain, head coach, Colorado State
McElwain was never linked all that much to the Michigan job and wound up at Florida ahead of the 2015 season and won 19 games in his first two years on the job, but then bowed out strangely in the middle of the 2017 season. As fate would have it, part of his career rehab would come under Harbaugh in 2018 as the team’s wide receivers coach and he parlayed that into the head job at Central Michigan, where he took the Chippewas from 1-11 in 2018 to 8-6 and winning the MAC West division in his first season.
Jerry Kill, head coach, Minnesota
Kill is a good football coach and was coming off back-to-back eight-win seasons at Minnesota, which was an impressive feat at the time. However, health issues forced him to retire in 2015 and he has spent the last few seasons as an assistant at Rutgers and Virginia Tech before taking a job at TCU ahead of 2020.
John Harbaugh, head coach, Baltimore Ravens
If they couldn’t land the top Harbaugh on their list, what about the other one? This was more unrealistic than Jim was at the time with six of his first seven seasons of the job resulting in postseason berths and a Super Bowl win over his brother to cap off the 2012 season. He had a 22-26 stretch from 2015-17, but Lamar Jackson’s breakout has breathed new life into his Baltimore career and he doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon.
Pep Hamilton, offensive coordinator, Indianapolis Colts
If Michigan couldn’t land Harbaugh, they wanted the next iteration of the program to look like a Harbaugh-style team. Hamilton was mentioned as a wild card after being Harbaugh’s offensive coordinator at Stanford for a few seasons. He would later wind up on Harbaugh’s staff at Michigan as the passing game coordinator in 2017-18.
Sean Payton, head coach, New Orleans Saints
This was mentioned somewhere, but never felt like a fit or even remotely logical, if he would even take the phone call.
The moral of the story here is that sometimes, coaching searches are as much of crapshoots as recruiting his. Fortunately, Michigan landed their top target and a guy who was the best candidate for the job at the time. They have not reached their ultimate goals and the five seasons so far have been a disappointment by a lot of metrics, but it is nearly impossible to look back on their most recent coaching search and think there was an upgrade somewhere else.