Jim Harbaugh’s future: If this is the Michigan coach’s last college game, that’s the sport’s loss

HOUSTON – Six hours. 

That’s how long Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said it took to turn his attention away from the 27-20 Rose Bowl victory against No. 4 Alabama to the College Football Playoff championship against No. 2 Washington. 

Harbaugh recounted that “happy flight” for No. 1 Michigan from Pasadena, Calif., as only he could at CFP championship media day Saturday. 

“You kind of walk up and down the aisles a little bit, talk about the game, ask guys questions,” Harbaugh said. “It’s just celebrating, just really fully celebrating that feeling. Then, after a couple of hours – drinking a Diet Coke on ice – and reflecting on it, taking it all in. About six hours, to answer your question. It is usually about six hours, then start thinking about the next game.” 

That is Pure Harbaugh – that choppy, unpredictable stream-of-consciousness response – who has a clear time frame when asked about the past leading into Monday’s matchup at NRG Stadium. 

MORE: Is J.J. McCarthy Michigan’s best QB ever?

Will Jim Harbaugh leave Michigan for the NFL? 

Then, Harbaugh deflected multiple attempts to get a peek at whether this will be his last college game before a potential return to the NFL sidelines in 2024. No matter how you word questions about the rumored contract extension or the potential NFL suitors or the convergent fallout between the CFP championship and Black Monday, Harbaugh will not bite.

“I’ll gladly talk about the future next week,” Harbaugh said. “I hope to have one, how about that?” 

If this is it – win or lose – then it is indisputable that college football will miss the Harbaugh experience when it is over. 

For Michigan – a victory in the CFP championship means the prodigal son will be remembered for restoring a program with a three-year run of dominance against Ohio State and the Big Ten for its first national title since 1997. 

For the haters, a loss would mean all that hubbub – from shirtless satellite camps to SEC struggles to the sign-stealing scandal – never amounted to a national championship. Harbaugh simply wore out his welcome with the NCAA and Big Ten with the constant flow of off-the-field allegations. 

How many college football coaches evoke that kind of cross-country emotional response other than Alabama’s Nick Saban and Colorado’s Deion Sanders? Harbaugh fits in that class, and that will never hurt the game. 

“College football needs characters,” ESPN’s Rece Davis told Sporting News. “Throughout its history, larger-than-life-personalities dominated whether it was Bear Bryant or Barry Switzer or Jimmy Johnson or Howard Schnellenberger. Bobby Bowden, Steve Spurrier. Those guys are great for the sport because they have personalities you can relate to. If we lose one of those, it will certainly be a loss for college football, if that is what Jim chooses to do.” 

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How Jim Harbaugh impacts the Big Ten 

Davis also mentioned Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler in relation to Harbaugh, and with good reason. The rivalry between Ohio State and Michigan has never been a better ratings draw since the Ten Year War.  It will take a hit without Harbaugh – who suffered five straight losses to Urban Meyer before the last three victories against Ryan Day. The Big Ten will lose the best coach who has not won a national championship to this point. Do Ohio State fans really want Harbaugh out before sending him packing with a few more losses? 

Harbaugh – who was 44-19-1 with the San Francisco 49ers from 2011-14 – will have success if he lands with the Chargers, Panthers, Patriots or Raiders. He will be another headset-on-the-sideline in that afternoon window in a sport where few coaches have that level of impact outside of Bill Belichick. College football thrives on the coaches – even in an environment where the players are staying for six and seven years now. 

“He has a unique ability to assess where the game is going and what his team needs to do to be successful,”  ESPN analyst Greg McElroy told SN. “If I were a NFL organization, I would do everything I could do to get him to listen.” 

BENDER: Michigan’s ultimate dream has one more step

Which coaches won national title and Super Bowl? 

Three coaches have won a national championship and a Super Bowl – a short list that includes Barry Switzer, Jimmy Johnson and Pete Carroll. Like Harbaugh, those coaches had high winning percentages at both levels. Like Harbaugh, those coaches dealt with controversies at the college level. Like Harbaugh, those coaches are authentic, combative and outspoken. 

What does Harbaugh have that those coaches did? Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy knows the answer.

“It’s the presence, him being in similar situations that I would be in in the game and talking through each of those situations,” McCarthy said. “You know, you could trust a guy when he’s been there and done it.”

For all the talk about Harbaugh’s off-brand external behavior, ask yourself this question: What do his players think? Harbaugh will talk at length about the transfer portal, NIL and revenue sharing – and every single time he sides with the student-athletes. 

“Coach Harbaugh, knowing the kind of guy he is, he’s the kind of guy you want to go win for,” Michigan linebacker Michael Barrett said. “He’s trickled that through the system, through the coaches, through the players.”

That builds to this moment. Harbaugh has not had the opportunity since going head-to-head against his brother John in Super Bowl XLVII – a 34-31 shootout where Baltimore edged San Francisco. John will be on the sidelines with Jim this time for the matchup against the Huskies. 

“Very similar comparison to Super Bowl week,” Harbaugh said. “It’s got that same feeling. It’s what you’re striving for, just to be simply known as world champions or national champions. That’s what you’re going for.”

MORE: SN experts make their picks for Monday’s final

Harbaugh was asked what he would say to his players if this were, in fact, his final game at Michigan. He offered no response to the NFL side of the question before saying, “My message is going to be to play as hard as you can, as fast you can, as long as you can and don’t worry. Just go have at it.” 

How long will it take to get an answer on Harbaugh’s future after that? Six hours? Six days? Six weeks? Will the result of Monday’s game impact that decision? What if McCarthy returns to school? All those questions are on a timeline now, and the reality Harbaugh leaves is that college football loses. 

“It would be a big loss for a sport, but who could blame him?” McElroy said. “If he gets a national championship and checks off that box for his alma mater, there’s still one more box left to check and he was five yards short of doing it with the Niners.” 

Is that true? Just don’t ask Harbaugh. He closed Sunday’s coaches press conference as only Harbaugh could, with more Pure Harbaugh. 

“The future, I hope to have one,” Harbaugh said. “Hope there’s a tomorrow. Hope there’s a day after tomorrow. I hope there’s a next week, next month. I hope a next year. Hope to have a future.”

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