ANN ARBOR, Mich. – It was easy to forget how the college football world vilifies Jim Harbaugh while Michigan was winning a Big Ten title and competing in the playoff. But in the days following his interview with the Minnesota Vikings, the baseless narratives have arisen once again.
If Harbaugh had left for an NFL job, the damage done to the Michigan football program would have been costly in the short term, and maybe even longer. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he did anything wrong.
That’s not the narrative being pushed by many national analysts, though, either because they don’t care to understand the situation or they’re pushing other agendas.
Interviewing for NFL job
When Adam Schefter reported Wednesday night that Harbaugh would return to Michigan, one of the most common reactions from people outside Ann Arbor was some form of, “Why would Michigan welcome back a coach who didn’t want to be there?”
It’s as if common sense goes out the window during Harbaugh discussions. People inside and outside of football interview for promotions every day -- and yes, an NFL head coaching job is a promotion over a college job.
Harbaugh wanted a chance to return to the world’s highest level of football, and it’s hard to fault him for that. Should NFL teams tell their coordinators to kick rocks if they interview for other head coaching positions?
This wasn’t Lincoln Riley ditching Oklahoma or Brian Kelly ghosting Notre Dame for lateral moves. It was a man with a better NFL winning percentage than any active coach in the league taking a shot to get back to the top.
No offer from Vikings
By all accounts, Harbaugh never received an offer from the Vikings, and that’s more ammunition for his critics.
To an extent, it’s reasonable. Harbaugh obviously didn’t do enough to convince the Vikings that he was the best fit. But how many other college coaches were finalists for NFL openings?
It’s like when people use Tom Brady’s three Super Bowl losses against him. Yes, he failed on the biggest stage, but would you rather he didn’t get there at all? Nobody says, “Hey, Phillip Rivers has three fewer Super Bowl losses than Brady!”
Most college football coaches, whether they’ll admit it or not, would take an NFL interview in a heartbeat. While the fact that he didn’t get an offer says something about Harbaugh’s deficiencies, his candidacy in itself is also an accomplishment, especially among his peers.
Future NFL flirtation
Multiple outlets have reported Harbaugh is telling athletic director Warde Manuel that pursing NFL openings won’t be a yearly issue. Some of the “experts” rolling their eyes are the same ones who insisted Harbaugh would never take the Michigan job in the first place.
OK, so, when has Harbaugh lied about his NFL interests?
If anything, Michigan’s head coach has been honest to a fault. Prospective recruits and even 2022 signees have confirmed Harbaugh told them about his NFL itch. In the dirty, anything-goes arena of recruiting, Harbaugh’s honesty should be considered a breath of fresh air.
From 2015-2019, he shot down rumors that connected him to NFL openings, and his actions backed up those statements.
So why, then, is the default assumption that this time he’s lying? In an era when coaches freely lie to players, parents and the media, Harbaugh’s word should hold as much weight as anyone’s.
Remember when Oklahoma was “blindsided” by Riley heading to Southern Cal? Or how Kelly abandoned Notre Dame when a playoff appearance was still possible? What about Mel Tucker declaring his commitment to Colorado four days before accepting the Michigan State job?
Maybe the skepticism of Harbaugh’s promise stems from a distrust of college coaches in general, and if so, that’s hard to argue. But Harbaugh, specifically, has proved to be someone to take at his word.
‘Terrible look’ for Harbaugh and Michigan
The way this situation played out certainly wasn’t ideal for Michigan, but anyone calling it a “terrible look” for Harbaugh and the program would have a hard time coming up with a way it could have been handled differently.
NFL searches happen during the NFL offseason, and that timeline doesn’t take into account what’s best for college teams. NFL general managers weren’t calling Harbaugh the moment Michigan’s season ended on New Year’s Eve.
From a Michigan standpoint, there was absolutely nothing Manuel and the university could have done differently. Harbaugh is under contract and the best option to remain head coach, so what was Michigan supposed to do?
There was no choice but to wait and see how the situation played out.
From Harbaugh’s perspective, he couldn’t make a decision until there were actual options to decide between. He apparently didn’t receive legitimate NFL interest until this week’s courtship with the Vikings, so he could hardly give a definitive answer before then.
It was an unfortunate, untimely impasse, but that doesn’t make it anyone’s fault.
When an opportunity finally did present itself, Harbaugh acted swiftly, telling Michigan of his intentions the very night of his lone interview.
Michigan’s entire 2022 recruiting class -- a top-10 group -- was already signed, so the fact that his interview happened on National Signing Day didn’t matter, either.
Harbaugh shouldn’t have to further prove his devotion to Michigan. He returned to resurrect the program when he could have taken his shot at any number of NFL jobs from 2015-2019. He’s been everything the university could have hoped for as a representative off the field. Just last month, he donated millions of dollars in bonus money to athletic department employees who lost wages due to the pandemic.
Other than a minority of the fan base -- the segment that would even find a way to be angry about a national championship -- everyone will welcome Harbaugh back with open arms. They should be incredibly relieved to have him.
But from a national perspective, the last month has been an opportunity to dismiss the great season Michigan just had and get back to what they do best: vilifying Harbaugh, facts be damned.