Michigan chose the right time to try and lure Jim Harbaugh to Ann Arbor

Michigan reportedly offered Jim Harbaugh a six-year, $48 million contract to become its next head coach. The Wolverines best opportunity to lure him is now.
Publish date:

In recent days, hope has risen within the Michigan athletic department: Jim Harbaugh, the darling of this coaching search, is serious about returning to his alma mater. The hopes are not unfounded, but they may be misguided. And while it is possible that Harbaugh goes to Michigan, I think it’s unlikely.

People are wowed by reports of a six-year, $48- or $49-million Michigan offer, and understandably so. That would make Harbaugh the highest-paid college coach in the country (until Nick Saban gets a raise 10 minutes later) and proves Michigan is extremely serious about hiring its former quarterback. And you may wonder: How can a man turn down $8 million a year?

Well, what if he gets $11 million a year somewhere else? That could happen, by the way. The Harbaugh bidding has just begun.

Ask yourself this: Who leaked the 6-year, $49-million offer to Joe Pequeno, a CBS reporter in Arizona, and confirmed it to the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport (who knocked a million off the number)?

I suppose it could be anybody. But understand this: Michigan does not leak or quietly confirm offers like that. Athletic director Jim Hackett has done a good job, to this point, of keeping the search quiet, and that gets harder to do every year. That’s the Michigan way, for better or worse, and that’s how Hackett operates.

And if Harbaugh’s first choice is to go to Michigan, there is no reason for anybody close to him to leak the numbers. It’s the biggest offer in the history of college sports (though Saban might have gotten more if he left for Texas last year). Michigan can’t go appreciably higher than that. If that’s the job Harbaugh wants, he can just take it.

• Michigan reportedly offers Jim Harbaugh a six-year, $48 million deal

But the leak does benefit Harbaugh if he wants to stay in the NFL. He is in a strange position, almost unprecedented in NFL history: coveted by a bunch of teams, but not by his own. The San Francisco 49ers apparently can’t wait to get rid of the best coach they have had since Bill Walsh. It’s ridiculous, and the way 49ers owner Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke have gone about it is even more worse. They decided in September it was more important to undermine their coach publicly than to bite their lips and, you know, win the Super Bowl.

Getting rid of Harbaugh will probably cost the 49ers dearly down the road. But it’s Harbaugh’s reality right now: The 49ers don’t want him, yet they control his rights for one more year. He signed a five-year contract in January 2011.

He can’t just choose to go to another NFL team. It isn’t that simple. The 49ers will want compensation, probably in the form of draft picks. But the Wolverines don’t own draft picks (a shame, since they certainly could use a few) and would only have to help Harbaugh buy himself out of the last year of his 49ers deal.

If he goes to Michigan, the 49ers lose. But getting wooed by Michigan only helps Harbaugh if it’s a viable landing place. Eight million dollars a year makes Michigan sound awfully viable.

This offer won’t really help Harbaugh squeeze more money out of an NFL team, because he doesn’t need Michigan for that. Some combination of the Raiders, Dolphins, Jets and/or Bears will bid against each other. But a serious Michigan offer forces the 49ers to settle for reasonable compensation, and allows Harbaugh to do what he is perfectly entitled to do: choose the job that is best for him.

Is this all a leverage play by Harbaugh? I don’t think it’s quite that simple. I’ve talked to Harbaugh numerous times about Michigan, and I have no doubt that he loves the school. For most of his adult life, he would have called being the head football coach at Michigan his dream job, even when he was still playing. (As a boy, Harbaugh knew he wanted to coach almost as soon as he knew he wanted to play.) I’m sure there are days when Michigan sounds like the perfect job to him.

So now Michigan is interested, Michigan is offering big money, Michigan does not bring the risk of a general manager and owner undermining him, Michigan is still home in a sense, and -- perhaps most importantly -- Michigan gets first crack at wooing Harbaugh. It doesn’t matter whether Michigan is wooing him directly or largely going through intermediaries. Michigan can do what NFL teams cannot: try to lure Harbaugh. NFL teams can’t do it, because Harbaugh is a 49ers employee and contacting him now would be tampering. The penalty for tampering would likely be more severe than whatever compensation the 49ers would demand.

So Michigan is the only voice in Harbaugh’s ear right now. It’s not just any voice either -- it’s the voice of Bo Schembechler and legendary announcer Bob Ufer and all the people who made Harbaugh love Michigan in the first place.

But there will almost assuredly be other voices. Harbaugh doesn’t really know all of his options yet. He will have some great ones in two weeks, and other voices in his ear. And this “monster offer” from Michigan is about to meet some larger monsters.

It’s no secret that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, a Michigan alum, loves Harbaugh. He tried to hire him four years ago. Ross is worth billions. He has donated $310 million to the university.

• Ex-Nebraska coach Pelini rips former AD in expletive-filled tirade

If Ross fires Joe Philbin, I’m quite sure he can outbid Michigan for Harbaugh.

Remember: Michigan asks Ross for money, not the other way around.

So at the end of this process, Harbaugh will probably do what most people in his position would do: evaluate all of his options and take the highest-level job, for the most money he can get, in a city he loves. Perhaps he will decide he is tired of the NFL or that all he wants in life is to coach Michigan. But there has never been an indication he is tired of the NFL. I don’t see how a big Michigan offer changes that.

He has a better chance to win consistently at Michigan over the long term than in the NFL, because the power college programs can contend for conference titles almost every year. But I think Harbaugh believes he can win anywhere, and so far he has done it at some unlikely places.

Give Michigan this, though: Hackett is doing this the right way. Even if Harbaugh is a long shot, Hackett must go after him, because Harbaugh is far and away the best candidate for the position, and college coaches are in a dead period for recruiting anyway. Hackett knows how to sell the school and how to build relationships, and Michigan is smart to get in Harbaugh’s ear now. It’s the school’s only shot.

If Michigan had been so aggressive and smart four years ago, Harbaugh probably would have taken the job. He was at Stanford at the time, and Michigan had an opening, but Hackett’s predecessor, Dave Brandon, blew it.

Brandon had to know at the end of November, 2010, that he would fire coach Rich Rodriguez. But he went through this charade of needing to watch a minor bowl game before making a decision. Conveniently, Rodriguez’s buyout dropped from $4 million to $2.5 million on Jan. 1.

Harbaugh was coaching Stanford, and he was seriously interested in the Michigan job. If Brandon had gone after Harbaugh in late November, he would have stood a great chance. Harbaugh was free to leave (college coaches often switch jobs before bowl games, even if they stay and coach the bowl), and no NFL team would call for another month.

Instead, Brandon waited until January to fire Rodriguez. By then, Harbaugh had NFL suitors and decided to try the pro game. Rodriguez couldn’t search for another job because it was too late. Brandon hired Brady Hoke on Jan. 11, and Hoke barely had time to assemble a staff and recruit. Everybody lost.

It is fair to wonder whether Brandon did this because he didn’t want Harbaugh, and hoped an NFL offer would get him off the hook, or if he did it because he thought he could save money and get Harbaugh. Either way, the end result is indisputable. Brandon botched it.

Michigan is trying to fix that mistake now, with a truckload of cash and train full of Michigan folks, publicly and privately tugging on Jim Harbaugh’s heartstrings. The man does love his school. There is no doubt about that. He also loves pro football. Michigan should have hired him when it had a better chance.