Could Jim Harbaugh return to the NFL? I think its real – The Athletic

Could Jim Harbaugh return to the NFL? I think its real – The Athletic

What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, Jim Harbaugh was coming off a 2-4 season after which he took a sizable pay cut to remain the head coach of his alma mater. Fast forward a year and Harbaugh finally beat archrival Ohio State, led Michigan to its first Big Ten title in 17 years and won AP Coach of the Year honors.

And now, The Athletic is hearing rumblings, both from the NFL side and at Michigan, that Harbaugh might be tempted to leave the Wolverines to return to the NFL. “I think it’s real,” said one source this week when asked about the possibility of Harbaugh being interested in heading back to the NFL.

The Raiders head coaching job might be tough for him to say no to given his ties to the organization — he started his coaching career there in 2003 — and the fact that there’s already a solid quarterback in place in Derek Carr. He’s also friends with Raiders owner Mark Davis.

It is worth noting that the Raiders are on a three-game winning streak under interim head coach Rich Bisaccia and could become a playoff team if they beat the Chargers on Sunday. Whether Davis is looking to find a new head coach is yet to be determined.

The Bears might be another option.

Harbaugh remade his staff at Michigan in the offseason — with an infusion of youth — and it paid off beautifully. The Wolverines whipped the Buckeyes 42-27, snapping an eight-game series losing streak, displaying the same bruising identity that Harbaugh honed to turn a dismal Stanford program into the bully of the West Coast. Michigan followed up the big win over Ohio State by routing No. 13 Iowa in the Big Ten title game 42-3. It was good enough to jump to No. 2 in the CFP rankings. But then, the Wolverines got mauled by a much more talented Georgia team, falling 34-11 last Friday night.

Michigan finished 12-2 and will be among the top four in the final rankings next week.

Harbaugh, 58, is the rare college coach who has proven he can be elite as an NFL head man. In four years with the 49ers, he went 44-19-1 and took San Francisco to a Super Bowl in his second year. And that was with a franchise that had not had a winning season in eight years.

The timing of all this is intriguing. A year ago, no team, other than Michigan, seemed to want Harbaugh as its coach, and the Wolverines were extending him through the 2025 season but at a reduced rate. His base salary for 2021 dropped to $4 million. Harbaugh had been paid over $8 million in 2020. He fired his defensive coordinator, Don Brown, and the program seemed to be backsliding by the year.

The new deal afforded him $1 million bonuses for winning the Big Ten championship and the College Football Playoff championship, and $500,000 bonuses for winning the Big Ten East Division and reaching the CFP. Those things, though, seemed so far-fetched 52 weeks ago.

After defeating the Buckeyes, Harbaugh announced that all bonus money from contract incentives this year would go toward all of the Michigan athletics employees whose pay had been affected by the pandemic.

Now, after having put Michigan back on top of the Big Ten — and having finally taken down Ohio State — is it the ideal time for the former star QB to return back to the NFL?

We’ll find out soon.

(Photo: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)