The Harbaugh Lesson: Few Kingdoms Remain in the NFL

| February 7th, 2022

When Jim Harbaugh arrived in Minneapolis, he found something he was not looking for: a job interview.

He expected a coronation.

But the truth of the NFL is there are very few kingdoms remaining. Bill Belichick’s got one in New England. Andy Reid does too in Kansas City. And one could argue there are burgeoning kingdoms developing in the lands of McVay and Shanahan, but both have extensive, invaluable personnel departments and, truthfully, you can’t be a king until you’ve worn the crown on the NFL’s final Sunday.

Harbaugh began his recent dalliance with the NFL by floating the rumor he wanted Las Vegas. But as is always the case with Vegas, it’s way better in theory. Vegas had two potential plans for their leadership void: a pairing of Ed Dodds and Harbaugh, and a pairing of Dave Ziegler and Josh McDaniels. Knowing the financial demands of Harbaugh – reported (by DBB) to be north of $100 million – Vegas chose to avoid the quicksand of another “Gruden situation” and went with the latter. (McDaniels’ hiring of Patrick Graham to run his defense has made Vegas one of the early winners of the off-season.)

Then came the Bears.

Both Bill Polian and Ted Phillips were intrigued by the prospect of Harbaugh coaching the Chicago Bears, but the whole of the hiring committee, specifically George McCaskey, were wary of lowering the drawbridge and giving him a kingdom. This organization is about to undergo significant transition in the coming years, with Phillips retiring in 2023 and the team making plans for a new stadium in Arlington Heights. The last thing ownership wants is more transition when it comes to football operations. And with Harbaugh, an historic flibbertigibbet, every off-season would bring questions of his potential departure. (One 4-win season for Michigan would lead to Stephen Ross mailing his checkbook to Lake Forrest.)

There was call between the parties. It was brief.

Then came Minnesota.

Harbaugh explained the situation to Mitch Albom in the Detroit Free Press:

“There was a tugging at me that I was once that close to a Super Bowl and I didn’t get it. Some NFL jobs came open. I was contacted by the (Minnesota) Vikings.

“For better or for worse, it was something I wanted to explore. I went in thinking, ‘I’m gonna have 100 percent conviction on this, and if they (Minnesota) have 100 percent conviction on this, then it’s something I’m gonna do.”

Harbaugh arrived, thinking he was interviewing them. He expected the red carpet and an offer on the table. But the Vikings were not as committed to Harbaugh as he thought. And by the end of the day, Harbaugh was recommitted to Michigan for what sounds like eternity and the organization made public their intention to hire Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell as their next head coach.

Strikingly silent during this entire process? Ross. The Miami owner is the University of Michigan’s biggest benefactor and one of Harbaugh’s biggest fans. After firing Brian Flores, Ross stated he would not be the owner to take Harbaugh from Michigan but even after Harbaugh announced his intention to return to the NFL, Ross balked at the opportunity to hire him and sat out the drama on his porch in Southhampton, NY. Why? It couldn’t have gone unnoticed by Harbaugh.

Harbaugh wanted the NFL. But the league simply didn’t want him with the same enthusiasm. And the reason is not because he’s not a terrific football coach. He is. But he is also occupationally unstable, and $100 million is a lot to pay for that kind of instability.

A kingdom requires the comfort of stability, longevity. Belichick ain’t going anywhere. Reid ain’t going anywhere. Sean Payton coached the Saints for 16 seasons. Harbaugh wasn’t going to give an organization ten seasons. Coaches like him never do. A ready-made contender might have taken a shot on him. But rarely do teams looking for a new coach fit that label.

And so, the man who would be king remains merely a wolverine. And a slightly defanged one at that.