Imagine you’re Jim Harbaugh. You’re kinda crazy, but you’re very good at your job. You built the success that Stanford enjoys today. You got the San Francisco 49ers within one play of a Super Bowl title. You’re currently coaching at your alma mater. Life should be grand.
Except it’s not. Few jobs in sports come with more pressure than being a football coach at a traditional power. Harbaugh has been good at Michigan. Still, being good might not be good enough.
Harbaugh needs to deliver this fall. When Harbaugh came to Ann Arbor in 2015, many expected his team would quickly be a national championship contender. Well, the Wolverines are 28-11, 18-8 in the Big Ten under Harbaugh. They have never finished higher than third in their division and have won only one bowl game.
A pair of coaches who are going into their fourth year with their teams:
Coach A: 28-11 (18-8) 1-2 in bowls, 0-1 in NY6 Bowls
Coach B: 34-7 (22-4) 3-0 in bowls, 2-0 in NY6 Bowls
Coach A is Jim Harbaugh
Coach B is Paul Chryst
— Jonathon Zenk (@jzenk42) May 26, 2018
For Harbaugh to remain at Michigan long term, he’s going to have to eventually win the Big Ten, beat Ohio State, compete for a national championship game. So far, he hasn’t done any of that. He’s 0-3 against the Buckeyes and has yet to earn a berth to the College Football Playoff.
Harbaugh’s biggest problem: he’s not Ohio State’s Urban Meyer. There’s no shame in that. Meyer and Alabama’s Nick Saban are the two best coaches in America. Perhaps the two best ever. But Wolverine fans don’t want to hear that. Harbaugh is a Michigan Man and his bravado and tough guy talk can be appealing. Personality goes a long way but results matter more.
The good news is Harbaugh could have his best team, keyed by Ole Miss transfer quarterback Shea Patterson. The bad news: if the Wolverines stumble, he could be fired. Coacheshotseat.com ranks him No. 6 – which is a little stunning considering his career record in college is 86-38.
At San Francisco, Harbaugh was forced out after he lost a power struggle with then general manager Trent Baalke. In college sports, coaches have more control over the roster. So you would figure that Harbaugh would have greater success. But college football also has its own idiosyncrasies you must navigate through and unhappy boosters/fans wield a lot of power.
In the NFL, only one man’s opinion matters: the owner. That’s the main reason why Marvin Lewis is still employed with the Cincinnati Bengals. If Harbaugh and Michigan part ways, he should strongly consider a return to the NFL where he was 44-19-1 at San Francisco.
Harbaugh developed/improved two quarterbacks when he was at San Francisco: Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick. Smith took the 49ers to the NFC championship game in Harbaugh’s second year. Kaepernick took San Francisco to the Super Bowl in Harbaugh’s third year.
Here are some potential NFL landing spots for Harbaugh:
The Houston Texans have some young key players that would entice any coach. In seven games as a rookie, Deshaun Watson looked like the next great quarterback.
He passed for 1,699 yards with 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Assuming he returns to form after his ACL injury, he should make this job attractive. Star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins is a vertical threat who has had to suffer through some terrible quarterbacks. The Texans also have defensive stud Jadeveon Clowney.
What has held this team back is its head coach. Bill O’Brien has made some poor in-game coaching decisions in recent years. Harbaugh would be a major coaching upgrade.
Harbaugh reportedly came close to becoming the Dolphins coach in 2011. However, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has denied that. Like Harbaugh, Ross is a Michigan alum. If there’s a change at Ann Arbor, it makes sense for Ross to go after Harbaugh.
Dolphins coach Adam Gase has the second-highest odds to be fired, just ahead of Cleveland Browns coach Hue Jackson. Ryan Tannehill is a decent enough quarterback and two years ago he posted career highs in QB rating of 93.5 and completion percentage (67.1). Tannehill is coming back from a knee injury, so if he’s healthy, he could be the second best quarterback in the AFC East.
New York Jets
Todd Bowles was never as good as his 10-6 record in his first season with New York in 2015. He also might not be as bad as his consecutive 5-11 seasons would suggest. It’s still rather surprising that the Jets decided to keep him on for a fourth season. It’s a tacit ackowledgment that the roster was bad and that the team was in tank mode. New York won more games that it was supposed to last year and almost blew a chance to get their quarterback of the future.
But in the end, what many predicted happened: Sam Darnold is a Jet. If Darnold shows promise and Bowles is jettisoned, then Harbaugh would be wise to check out New York.
While Harbaugh is known as a QB whisperer, his defenses are usually better than his offenses. At Stanford, San Francisco, and Michigan, his defenses have been tough and effective. The Denver defense isn’t quite what it was when it won the Super Bowl, but it still has some key players. Pass rusher Von Miller and rookie Bradley Chubb could form a combination similar to what Harbaugh had in San Franciso with Justin Smith and Aldon Smith.
Denver coach Vance Joseph has a new quarterback in Case Keenum who should be light years ahead of the lousy QBs he had in his first year. If Keenum struggles, Joseph might be out. Maybe GM John Elway brings in a proven winner like Harbaugh.
Perhaps none of those jobs become open. Perhaps Harbaugh has a breakthrough season and finally wins the Big Ten. Even if that happens, college football is a crazy place. You’re always one losing streak away from being in serious trouble. Harbaugh should consider plotting an exit strategy before the craziness devours him.