What Jim Harbaugh’s Return to the NFL Means for the Chargers and All of College Football



Jim Harbaugh is headed back to the NFL to coach the Los Angeles Chargers, but it comes after the most polarizing season of his 20-year head coaching career.


After coming up short in the College Football Playoff in back-to-back seasons, Michigan’s 2023 campaign began without the leader of its program. Harbaugh was suspended for the Wolverines’ first three contests by the University of Michigan itself for recruiting violations.


Michigan still cruised to a 3-0 start without him, but it wasn’t the only scandal to hit Harbaugh during the season.


The former Heisman Trophy finalist with the Wolverines returned to the sideline for six more wins to move Michigan to 9-0 on the season before a second three-game suspension was handed to Harbaugh. This time the Big Ten Conference was the enforcer after linking the former NFL Comeback Player of the Year to Michigan’s sign-stealing scandal, but the Wolverines went 3-0 without Harbaugh once again – including a win over Ohio State – to complete a perfect 12-0 regular season.


From there, Harbaugh’s roller coaster season was filled with nothing but highpoints. Michigan went on to crush Iowa 26-0 to claim the Big Ten Championship, outlasted Alabama in a 27-20 overtime thriller, and dominated Washington in the CFP National Championship game to earn Harbaugh and the Wolverines their long-desired NCAA Championship in the 21st century.


Many coaches would look to follow a 15-0 season that involved two separate 3-game suspensions and resulted in a national championship with a calm offseason. But this is Jim Harbaugh we’re talking about, so naturally another curveball was in the cards.


In comes Harbaugh’s recent decision to return to the NFL as the head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers. It’s a choice that has major implications for both the NFL and NCAA.


NFL Implications


For the Chargers, it’s a home-run hire.


First and foremost, he’s already proven he can get it done in the NFL.


Harbaugh led the San Francisco 49ers to the NFC Championship Game in each of his first three years as an NFL head coach. A select group of coaches have been to three consecutive conference championship games, but to do so in his first three seasons as a head coach is even more impressive. The three-year span also included a combined 36-11 regular season record, two NFC West titles, and a trip to the Super Bowl.


Sure, Harbaugh was fired after his fourth season in San Francisco, but the Niners still went 8-8 that season and his dismissal was more due to disagreements within the front office.


Now in 2024, the Chargers are hoping Harbaugh can repeat his success of following a decorated collegiate coaching stint with immediate success with his new NFL team. That’s the exact path he took when he followed a 12-1 season and Orange Bowl victory with Stanford in 2010 with his move to the 49ers.


In addition to Harbaugh’s resume, the hire makes perfect sense for the Chargers in regards to the current state of their franchise.


Harbaugh – who quarterbacked in the NFL for 14 seasons – is widely seen as a quarterback friendly head coach after maximizing the potentials of Andrew Luck at Stanford, J.J. McCarthy at Michigan, and Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick with the 49ers. Now he inherits a Chargers roster with Justin Herbert, a quarterback who has shown flashes of being a generational talent, but has struggled to win in Los Angeles.


In addition to the quarterback-coach relationship, Harbaugh is regarded as an elite motivator that coaches disciplined teams. The Chargers – who have endured endless strange coaching decisions from recent head coaches Anthony Lynn and Brandon Staley – desperately need his consistent leadership. 


The Chargers are consistently one of the leading teams in the NFL in losses in one-score games. If Harbaugh’s addition can turn the tide in tight contests, the Chargers could ride the Herbert-Harbaugh combination to future postseason runs in the AFC.


NCAA Implications


The Harbaugh hire has huge implications for the Chargers, but it impacts the NCAA landscape as a whole even more than the NFL.


Harbaugh helped return Michigan to prominence over the past few seasons before finally returning to the top of the college football world for the first time since 1997. The Wolverines are officially a blue-blood CFB program again thanks to Harbaugh, but the question is if they can stay there without him.


Michigan promoted offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore to head coach following Harbaugh’s departure. It was Moore who led the Wolverines to a 6-0 record during Harbaugh’s suspensions. Moore became a popular figure in Ann Arbor, but it’s still yet to be seen if he can lead an elite college football program.


If Michigan falls off at all, it impacts the entire college football world.


A slight Wolverine decline likely pushes Ohio State back to the top of the Big Ten Conference, and that’s a title that means a whole lot more in 2024 with the additions of Oregon, USC, Washington and UCLA to the conference. The new-look Big Ten Conference is battling with a new-look SEC to be the best conference in the sport, especially with the potential for further conference realignment in the coming years. The Big Ten signed a seven-year, $7 billion media deal with FOX, CBS, and NBC in 2022 that comes in direct competition with the SEC’s 10-year, $3 billion deal with ESPN that begins in 2024. 


When it comes to college football, it’s never too early to look ahead. With the Big Ten – and potentially the entire NCAA – likely to look even more different by the time its media deal ends in 2030, any potential regression from a flagship program like Michigan after Harbaugh’s departure could seriously impact TV money, future realignment, and the new 12-team CFP format.


Harbaugh’s roller coaster of a championship season changed his legacy at Michigan forever. Now his return to the NFL could have a lasting impact on the entire college football and NFL landscapes.

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