Jim Harbaugh’s time at Michigan is over. After almost a decade of leading his alma mater, the former Wolverines quarterback is off to the NFL again to take on a new challenge with the Los Angeles Chargers.
He’s leaving Michigan in a much better spot than he found it. After years of steady buildup, Harbaugh led Michigan to its first national title in almost three decades by downing Washington in the College Football Playoff National Championship. This latest step is the culmination of three straight Big Ten titles and CFP appearances.
Harbaugh leaves with an 89-25 record overall with an even more impressive 60-17 showing in Big Ten play. Michigan didn’t lose a single regular-season game in his final two years at the helm, and he became the first UM coach since Lloyd Carr in 1995-97 to win at least three straight games against Ohio State.
But Harbaugh’s tenure wasn’t filled with exclusively highlights. There was a time, though it seems like alternate history at this point, when a large section of Michigan fans were calling for his job. The Wolverines were embroiled in two scandals during the same calendar year to put them under the NCAA’s microscope.
With Harbaugh’s time at Michigan now at an end, it felt appropriate to trace Michigan’s journey under its enigmatic and now former coach dating back to the 2020 season when the national title-winning coach nearly lost his job. Though Harbaugh was in Ann Arbor for nine years, the last four were by the far the most eventful.
Harbaugh on the hot seat
Fall 2020: Despite three 10-win seasons in his first four years back at Michigan, the Wolverines repeatedly failed to beat Ohio State and make the the Big Ten Championship Game, a dry streak that extended through the first six years of Harbaugh’s tenure. The program hit a new low during the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season, posting a 2-4 record and going winless at home for the first time in program history. Some were already displeased with Harbaugh’s failure to reach the top of the mountain. and more specifically, supplant Ohio State in the Big Ten; those voices reached a chorus in 2020.
Harbaugh agrees to school-friendly deal
January 2021: Amid all the fire and vitriol over the 2020 season, Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel bet on Harbaugh and signed him to a four-year contract extension with the aim of keeping him in Ann Arbor through the 2025 season. With it, according to the Detroit Free Press, came a new pay structure that slightly decreased Harbaugh’s base salary but added financial incentives for hitting certain goals, such as winning the Big Ten East, winning a Big Ten title and making the College Football Playoff. It also restructured Harbaugh’s buyout to $4,000,000 for the 2021 season, decreasing by $1 million each following athletic year.
Getting over the hump vs. Ohio State
Nov. 27, 2021: The 2021 season looked like a return to form for Michigan. The Wolverines entered their regular-season finale 10-1 with a spot in the Big Ten title game on the line. The only problem: Ohio State, riding an eight-game winning streak against Michigan, was standing in the way. With everything on the line, Michigan got over the hump in emphatic fashion. Running back Hassan Haskins scored five touchdowns as Michigan trounced Ohio State to the tune of 42-27. UM went on to beat Iowa 42-3 to claim its first Big Ten title under Harbaugh and parlayed that into its first College Football Playoff appearance in program history. Manuel’s faith in Harbaugh paid off in spades.
NFL overtures begin
January-February 2022: Following that resurgent 2021 season, Harbaugh started fielding interest from the NFL for the first time in over a decade. He had two interviews with the Minnesota Vikings, the second of which happened on National Signing Day. All signs pointed towards Harbaugh taking the Minnesota job, but the deal fell through. Harbaugh told Michigan’s players he was returning to Ann Arbor for another season and announced to the Detroit Free Press that this would be “the last time” he entertained interest from the NFL.
Another new contract
February 2022: Following his first round of flirtations with the NFL and the success of 2021, Harbaugh was rewarded with a new contract that extended him through 2026 and bumped his annual pay by almost $3 million. He made $7.05 million in the first year of the new deal, with his pay scaling to $7.62 million in the final year of the deal. It was also laced with incentives that tacked a few million dollars onto the base salary, such as winning the Big Ten and winning a national title. Harbaugh’s buyout, which had depreciated every year since his 2021 extension, was bumped back up to $3 million for the first year of this extension.
Two in a row over Ohio State
Nov. 26, 2022: Michigan broke the seal against Ohio State in 2021 and kept that momentum rolling in 2022 with another dominant win against the Buckeyes, 45-23, marking its first consecutive wins in the series since the turn of the century. It was also the first time since 1947-48 that the Wolverines beat their top rival by at least two possessions in two straight games. As it did in 2021, Michigan rode the wave of its win against Ohio State into a Big Ten title and an appearance in the CFP.
Harbaugh flirts with NFL again
January 2023: Fresh off of adding to Michigan’s status as an emerging dynasty, Harbaugh once more turned his eyes toward the professional level. He reportedly met with the Denver Broncos in January 2023, though an offer didn’t materialize. And, just like he did a year prior, Harbaugh announced he’d be back at Michigan for another year.
Michigan comes under NCAA microscope
July 2023: The NCAA notified Michigan of four alleged Level II violations committed during the COVID-19 recruiting dead period and one Level I violation against Harbaugh for supposedly misleading investigators. The initial belief was that Harbaugh would be suspended for four games to begin the 2023 season, while offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore and tight ends coach Grant Newsome were expected to receive some sort of punishment from the NCAA stemming from the investigation.
Harbaugh receives first suspension
August 2023: Just as it seemed as if Harbaugh and the NCAA were about to reach an agreement on a four-game suspension, the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions rejected the negotiated deal. Though it effectively delayed any punitive measures, NCAA’s case continued through the disciplinary process.
And Harbaugh wasn’t completely off the hook anyway. On Aug. 23, just over a week before the 2023 season was set to begin, Michigan self-imposed a three-game suspension of Harbaugh due to the alleged violations. He subsequently missed wins against East Carolina, UNLV and Bowling Green before he was allowed to return to the sidelines. Moore (Bowling Green) and defensive coordinator Jesse Minter (East Carolina) each coached a game in Harbaugh’s absence, while special teams coordinator (and Jim’s son) Jay Harbaugh and running backs coach Mike Hart co-led the Wolverines’ win over UNLV.
Alleged sign-stealing scheme brought to light
October 2023: Midway through October, reports surfaced that the NCAA was investigating Michigan for allegedly violating rules against in-person scouting of future opponents. On Oct. 20, former staffer Connor Stalions, who apparently orchestrated the scheme, was suspended without pay. Stalions allegedly bought tickets to more than 30 games at 12 of the possible 13 Big Ten stadiums, along with four tickets to games featuring nonconference CFP contenders over a three-year period with the purpose of, among other things, electronically recording opposing sidelines to gather signals. He later resigned on Nov. 3. The NCAA and Big Ten launched respective investigations into Michigan’s program as a result.
Harbaugh hit with second suspension
November 2023: While the NCAA investigation into Michigan’s alleged sign-stealing scheme is still ongoing, the Big Ten’s examination concluded rather quickly. It announced on Nov. 10 that Harbaugh would be suspended for the final three games of the regular season, including that key finale against Ohio State. According to the Big Ten, Michigan, under Harbaugh’s watch, violated the league’s sportsmanship policy. Michigan initially challenged the Big Ten’s decision and almost took the conference to court before reversing course and accepting Harbaugh’s suspension on Nov. 16. The Wolverines still finished the year 3-0 under interim coach Moore, and Harbaugh was back on the sideline for Michigan’s 26-0 win against Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Michigan receives notice of allegations
Dec. 20, 2023: Shortly after winning its third straight Big Ten title, Michigan received a notice of allegations stemming from the NCAA’s investigation into recruiting violations during the COVID-19 dead period. Michigan committed four Level II violations, according to the NCAA, and Harbaugh received a Level I allegation for misleading investigators. Michigan agreed to several Level II allegations, including texting during the dead period, illegal on-field coaching by analysts and coaches watching workouts via Zoom during the COVID-19 shutdown. The NCAA could accept Harbaugh’s three-game suspension as sufficient punishment in regards to the Level I violation, but it will go through the judicial process first. Michigan has 90 days from receiving the notice of allegations to respond, and the NCAA gets an extra 60 days for the rebuttal. Factor in what could be a lengthy appeals process and this saga could stretch well into the summer.
Michigan finally climbs the mountain
Jan. 8, 2024: Amid all the controversy and increasing buzz about Harbaugh’s future in the NFL, Michigan finally broke through. It won its first playoff game in program history by downing SEC powerhouse Alabama 27-20 in overtime of the Rose Bowl, setting up a date with Washington in the CFP National Championship. There, the Wolverines kept their foot on the gas and dominated in the trenches on both sides of the ball to plow ahead for a 34-13 win. That gave Michigan its first national title since since the start of the BCS/CFP eras and capped an almost decade-long journey filled with myriad peaks and valleys for Harbaugh and his Wolverines.
Harbaugh finally jumps back into NFL waters
January 2024: Not even a day after Michigan’s national title win, reports surfaced that multiple NFL teams were looking into Harbaugh as a head coaching candidate. That research quickly materialized into interviews. Harbaugh met with both the Atlanta Falcons and the Chargers twice, though he ultimately decided on a return to California. Now he’s hoping to lead a Los Angeles squad with a promising young QB in Justin Herbert to the promised land, just as he did during his time as a “Michigan Man.”