Jim Harbaugh has decided to leave his alma mater Michigan after eight seasons to return to the NFL as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, according to multiple reports. The former San Francisco 49ers coach had interviewed for the Los Angeles Chargers and Falcons openings in recent days before ultimately choosing Atlanta.
Backstory on Harbaugh’s Time at Michigan
Harbaugh returned to Ann Arbor in 2015 after four seasons as coach of the 49ers, which included a Super Bowl appearance. Tasked with restoring glory to his struggling alma mater, Harbaugh helped rebuild the Wolverines into a top Big Ten program once again. He led Michigan to the 2021 College Football Playoff, but the team lost to eventual champion Georgia in the semifinals.
While Harbaugh reached heights at Michigan not seen in over two decades, he was unable to get over the hump against archrival Ohio State. He went just 2-5 against the Buckeyes and failed to win the Big Ten or make it back to the playoff. After this past season’s 45-23 home loss dropped Harbaugh to 0-5 against OSU at the Big House, speculation swirled that he could leave Ann Arbor or be fired.
Negotiations with Michigan Break Down
Harbaugh and Michigan were working on a contract extension in recent weeks, but talks broke down over several unusual requests from the coach. Harbaugh reportedly asked for a lifetime contract at his current salary of $7.05 million per year. He also requested several insurance policies in case he was terminated for performance.
With the two sides at an impasse, Harbaugh decided to explore NFL opportunities. Both the Chargers and Falcons requested to interview him for their vacant head coaching jobs.
Why Harbaugh Chose the Falcons
After an initial interview with each team earlier in the week, Harbaugh had a second meeting with the Falcons on Thursday. Atlanta emerged as the favorite to land him for several reasons:
- Roster Talent: The Falcons roster already includes established stars like tight end Kyle Pitts and rookie receiver Drake London to support veteran QB Marcus Mariota.
- NFC South Competition: The division features aging legends Tom Brady (Bucs) and Drew Brees (Saints), providing a clearer path back to the playoffs.
- Fan Support: Harbaugh likely believes he can quickly win over Falcons fans starving for a return to relevance after four straight losing seasons.
The Falcons were also viewed as more eager than the Chargers to meet Harbaugh’s contract demands and give him personnel control.
While exact terms have not emerged, Harbaugh’s deal with the Falcons is believed to be in line with top NFL coaches:
- Over $9 million annually
- At least 5 guaranteed years
- Opt-out clause after 3 years
The contract likely provides Harbaugh the security and flexibility he desired after growing tired of year-to-year speculation at Michigan.
What This Means for Michigan
Losing a high-profile leader like Harbaugh, especially late in the offseason when most top coaching candidates have been hired elsewhere, leaves Michigan in a difficult spot. Defensive coordinator Jesse Minter could take over as interim coach, butletic director Warde Manuel will also aim to lure an established head coach to steer the program forward.
Top candidates include:
- Iowa State’s Matt Campbell
- Baltimore Ravens OC Greg Roman
- Cincinnati Bengals DC Lou Anarumo
- Michigan associate head coach Sherrone Moore
Regardless of who replaces Harbaugh, Michigan faces significant challenges in keeping pace with Big Ten elite Ohio State and contending nationally going forward.
Reaction from Coaching Ranks
The stunning late move sent shockwaves through the coaching community. Harbaugh’s brother John, head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, admitted he was unsure whether Jim would depart Michigan and said, “It’s going to be what it’s going to be. What matters is what he wants to do.”
Longtime ESPN analyst Paul Finebaum declared Harbaugh’s exit a certainty, saying he “failed” at Michigan and “ran away” instead of facing Ohio State again next season.
Former Ohio State star Cardale Jones tweeted that Michigan letting Harbaugh out of his contract was an “absolutely stupid” decision that now benefited a conference rival.
- Jim Harbaugh will be formally introduced by the Falcons at a press conference in the coming days once his contract is signed.
- He will immediately start assembling an NFL coaching staff, likely bringing coordinators from the college ranks.
- The Falcons have the 8th overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, which Harbaugh will prepare for.
- Harbaugh’s first challenges in Atlanta will be evaluating the roster, installing his schemes, and establishing a new team culture.
- Michigan will formally launch its search for Harbaugh’s long-term replacement over the next week. Key names will interview over the next month.
Jim Harbaugh’s shocking exit from Michigan after a relative successful tenure for another shot at NFL glory shakes up both the college and pro football worlds. All eyes will be on how Harbaugh’s re-entry into pro coaching with the Falcons plays out. Meanwhile, his abrupt departure throws his alma mater Michigan into a state of uncertainty right before a critical season.
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