Jim Harbaugh’s likely NFL return shows college isn’t what it used to be
Jim Harbaugh’s much-anticipated return to the NFL is about more than one coach, one college and one NFL team. It’s about a shift in the landscape of coaching at the highest level
It was easy to scoff at the initial reports that University of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh was considering a return to the NFL.
In the normal cause of business, it looked like a well-timed (if obvious) leak on the heels of a successful season, a college coach looking to maximize his value and extract maximum dollars and influence out his school.
Not so fast. At this stage, Harbaugh returning to the NFL feels like a fait accompli. He has been linked with all of the head coach openings that have trickled out of the league this week, and has yet to issue any public denials that he’s looking to leave Ann Arbor.
In case you’re in need of a quick refresher on Harbaugh’s time at Michigan: He returned to his alma mater as a conquering hero, a former Wolverines quarterback who turned into one of the most successful coaches – in college and the pros – of the 2010s; he had a reputation for heading to places that stunk and immediately making them great; he had previously taken the 49ers to within a play of winning the Super Bowl; things turned sour over the Niners potential rebuild; he was in high demand in the NFL; he rebuffed interest in favor of returning to his school.
In his first couple of years back at school, Michigan were good but not good enough. Then they stunk. Then Harbaugh, at one time the highest-paid coach in the country, took a meaty pay cut. Then Michigan became really good, finally toppling bitter rivals Ohio State and making it to a first college football playoff – where they were boat-raced by eventual national champions Georgia.
In the abstract, a coach beating the once-unconquerable rival and making it into the postseason would signal the start of something. For Harbaugh and Michigan, it seems like the end.
Harbaugh’s anticipated return to the NFL – be it with the Bears, Raiders, Dolphins, Giants, or any of the open positions that have interest in the coach – is about more than one coach, one college, and one NFL team. It’s about a shift in the landscape of coaching at the highest level.
There was a time when college coaching jobs ranked as the best in the country. Sure, college coaches would bounce up to the next level to test themselves, as much an ego play as anything else – a chance to see if they could really coach against the best of the best. But the expectations, the short tenures, the salary cap, the draft meant sustained success was difficult.
Parity is legislated in the NFL; it’s equality by design. In college, the rich have always gotten richer. You recruit well. So you win. So you recruit even better. So you win even bigger. On and on the cycle rolls. Coaches were apt to stay where they could rack up wins and champions and accrue ever-increasing amounts of power.
In the NFL, teams are designated one first-round pick a year. At the blueblood college programs, they’re consistently pulling in two or three future first-round picks a year in high-school recruiting, with a gaggle of second and third-round picks filling out the roster. In the good old days, once you had established a program, the thing could sit on cruise control for close to a decade; the season coming down to one or two games at the end.
But times they are a-changin’. Athletes at the college level have been given some agency. Now, the playing body has some power. Athletes are now free to transfer schools, one time, penalty-free. They’re able to put their name in the ‘transfer portal’, to let other schools know they’re available and open for business.
And it is indeed a business. The advent of Name Image and Likeness (NIL) in all its unregulated glory has led to a recruiting arms race. What was once covert is now overt: players are being paid full-time salaries to play collegiate football. The mechanics are goofy. Coaches cannot outright recruit a player based on NIL. A booster must set up an LLC and ‘license’ a player’s (or whole position groups) image.
Still: The implications have been immediate and gravity-altering. Bringing payments out of the shadows is what allowed Jackson State, an HBCU in college football’s second division, to attract the No 1 overall recruit in the country. The traditional powers continue to hoover up the majority of the talent, but the playing field has been democratized. If your school has a wealthy backer willing to hand over dollars to college students, you’re in The Game.
Those jigsaw pieces taken together have changed the structure of the sport. Alabama built a dynastic program on principle that it was ‘fourth-and-goal every day’. Now, it’s free agency every day. A college coach is no longer spending whatever free time he can muster firing off texts to teenagers or flying across the country to check out the next biggest thing. He is re-recruiting the players already in his building.
There is no legislation that could stop Bryce Young, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, from putting his name into the transfer portal tomorrow. He could offer his services to the highest bidder at the click of a button. That may be Alabama, it may not. The power that schools and the coaches that govern those schools once held over the players, their future NFL prospects and earning power, has eroded.
The players gaining a modicum of power has loosened the grip of once dictatorial coaches. Every conversation, every decision is a recruiting pitch. Bench a player for his backup, he’s gone. Unable to pony up the NIL deal commensurate with your lineman’s value? He’ll see you at the class reunion. There’s a reason Nick Saban is suddenly all smiles; the talent will go where it’s fun and they pay.
It will require a different style of coach moving forward, a different mindset. When asked about whether he had ever dreamed about taking the Miami job, new head coach Mario Cristobal, widely considered the nation’s top recruiter, shot back: “I don’t have time for dreams”. There was not a hint of jest in his voice. He was serious. Why take time for things such as sleep when there’s another deal to be struck with a three-star cornerback in Boca Raton? While you’re dreaming, Cristobal is ‘crootin.
Once upon a time, with four-year scholarships and coaches able to block transfer requests from their athletes, a college coach could build for the long-term. It was the NFL that was a place that demanded immediate results. Now, college football is the place of upheaval; the NFL is where a coach can find some stasis.
Sure, since the NFL expanded its playoff field 11 teams have failed to make the playoffs and 10 of those sides have made coaching changes (not strictly for on-field reasons). But – ah – guaranteed contracts; a set number of draft picks; a salary cap; the chance to sign your quarterback to a deal that means he cannot up and leave for a bigger offer in eight months’ time.
No coach goes into a job assuming they’re going to fail. They think they’re going to succeed. And if you think you’re going to hit – that you can out-scheme opponents and find the talent needed to win – the NFL now offers an advantage over the college game. When you get done with work, you’re done with work. Player movement doesn’t really begin until the offseason – and it’s regulated. Those TikTok dances you’ve had to do in an 18-year-olds living? They’re out. Sleeping over at a kicker’s house to fend off your recruiting rivals? They’re gone, too.
Team-building is streamlined. There are no backroom dealings with boosters.
There have always been extremes between the college and professional ranks. It’s why so many of college football’s superstar coaches have flamed out in the pros. The broad outline was the same but the nitty-gritty required different skill sets.
That divide is now growing. Those who could stomach the old way of doing things — their way of doing things – will soon start running for the hills now that the players have a say. One game requires a fresh skillset; the other a different entirely.
Harbaugh will be the first to jump from the new lifestyle because he has the pedigree to do so. And while college coaches have had rough records when jumping to the pros before, that won’t stop NFL owners from offering big-time deals to try to lure away the next hot candidate. Now more than ever, they will listen.