Jim Harbaugh to NFL rumors have been a common occurrence ever since he stepped foot in Ann Arbor — but the dynamics are a bit different this time around.
Michigan went 2-4 a year ago, and shocked everyone just one year later this season. In just a calendar year there might not be a better example in football of turning cynics into believers.
2021 wasn’t a rebuilding year, it was an impressive onslaught by the Wolverines — they did a whole lot of bludgeoning en route to one of their most memorable seasons the storied program’s ever had, with nothing as memorable as the 42-27 domination over Ohio State in a snowy Michigan Stadium. A 42-3 win against Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game was equally impressive, so was earning a berth in the College Football Playoff. Jim Harbaugh was the Associated Press Coach of the Year.
This season only came to be because Harbaugh did something quite unprecedented — instead of letting ego get in the way and reject Michigan’s offer, which was half of his previous salary (before bonuses), he signed on the dotted line and kept coaching the Wolverines. Harbaugh’s number one driver isn’t money, he’s said it himself, and it’s a reflection of him donating $2 million in bonuses to athletic department staffers who endured pay reductions during the pandemic.
However, the decrease in salary was in essence implying they didn’t believe in him like they once did. Did those contract parameters really scream ‘we think you’re going to beat Ohio State this season’, or did they say something to the contrary? Did slashing the contract of the head coach really show the university is committed to winning at the highest of levels, show a commitment to growing all things NIL (name, image, likeness) related? Is the administration giving the program all the tools necessary to succeed?
Did this construct open the door for an NFL team to let Harbaugh know how serious they are about winning, how much they believe in him?
It’s fair to wonder if the Michigan brass didn’t believe Michigan would get to where they were this season when Harbaugh, the revamped staff, and leaders like Aidan Hutchinson dug down even harder to prove everyone wrong.
Harbaugh found his groove yet again in 2021. High energy, high intensity — the man came to Big Ten Media Days in July saying Michigan aimed to beat Michigan State, Ohio State, everyone, that they were going to “do it or die trying”. Harbaugh said that he was back down to his playing weight, he was pushing sleds after practice, Jim was back. Jim was back all season long.
Harbaugh has always been a competitive man, but there was a major bond between he and his players in 2021, there was synchronicity — they embodied him and he embodied them. The results then followed. This type of story resonated nationally (Michigan played in 4 of the top 6 televised games this season). And that type of story resonates with NFL front offices. Harbaugh’s proven track record in the league doesn’t hurt either — 2011 Coach of the Year, three consecutive NFC Championship Games, one Super Bowl appearance.
Harbaugh reminded the NFL who he is.
Now we sit here in early January, and Harbaugh’s name is the biggest talk in all of football. There’s a National Championship Game in a few days, yet Harbaugh is receiving the most intrigue.
Of course the NFL wants Jim Harbaugh.
Only through time will all be revealed.