Michigan's Jim Harbaugh takes aim at NFL Draft rules, other college football issues in 'open letter'

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has never been hesitant to challenge the rules that govern college athletics, particularly football. During this stay-at-home time during the COVID-19 pandemic, Harbaugh has designed three proposals that could re-shape the future for college football players by giving them more control over their careers.

Among the proposals, Harbaugh suggests a player can declare for the NFL Draft after any season. If he is not selected in the first 224 picks of the draft, he could choose to return to college with his eligibility intact or sign an NFL free-agent contract and move on.

Jim Harbaugh

Harbaugh shared his thoughts Thursday afternoon in what he titled: “An Open Letter to the College Football Community,” an opportunity, he suggested, to encourage discussion of the “evolving issues facing intercollegiate football.” He wrote it is not unreasonable for college football players to feel their futures in professional football are hindered “given the rules currently in place.”

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The idea of allowing an undrafted player to return to college has support from others around college football. 

"Let’s find a way to let them come back," Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo said. "What is a good reason we’re not letting them come back? I can't think of one."

It's a rule that could have affected Michigan State wide receiver Cody White just recently after he left MSU following his junior season and did not get drafted. He eventually signed a free-agent deal with the Kansas City Chiefs. A shift to a rule Harbaugh supports would have allowed White the option of returning to Michigan State.

There are issues to a player returning, DiNardo admitted, namely in scholarship management as teams are limited to 85 total. But, he pointed out there are solutions.

"You either put them in the 85 or you let me average 85," said DiNardo, a former head coach at Vanderbilt, LSU and Indiana. "So three of them come back, I'm at 88. But then some years you might at 78. I always say if they're smart enough to make $7 million a year, they're smart enough to figure out what the average of 85 is."

Another option DiNardo offered is more drastic: If a player like Ohio State's Chase Young, who was drafted No. 2 overall this season by Washington, is taken by a team he doesn't want to play for, he can return to school, too. That could, in essence, force the NFL to move the draft earlier in the year to allow college teams to sign their recruiting classes without wondering which players might return.

It's all an effort, DiNardo said, to do what's best for the players.

"The issue is to let them come back and that's what Jim is saying and I agree with him 100 percent," DiNardo said. 

This certainly is not the first time Harbaugh has waded into the world of college football reform. Since taking over as head coach of his alma mater in 2015, Harbaugh has challenged the NCAA several times, questioning the rules of the governing body of college athletics.This time, he also challenges the NFL for its rule that players can only be eligible for the NFL Draft with a minimum of three years in college football.

Most recently, he has been a vocal proponent of a one-time transfer rule for football players and all student-athletes, sharing that opinion last July at the Big Ten football media days. He also supports Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) legislation. Early on after becoming Michigan head coach, he ignited controversy when he found a loophole in the NCAA rules and created satellite camps, and then also found an opportunity to take his team on spring trips overseas.

In his latest thoughts, he said there are “early bloomers” who can compete at an earlier age in the NFL. Harbaugh’s plan would make adjustments for current and future student-athletes that allow them to have more discretion when it comes to their transition to pro football.

Harbaugh, in the first proposal, says a player can declare for the NFL Draft after any season – it is an NFL rule that restricts draft eligibility to athletes with a minimum of three years of college football. If the player is not selected in the first 224 picks, he can sign as a free agent or return to school with his eligibility intact, as long as he hasn’t received money from an agent.

Jim Harbaugh and former Michigan QB Shea Patterson.

Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel offered his support for Harbaugh during an episode Thursday of "Michigan Football: In The Trenches with Jon Jansen."

"From the perspective of football, I think the time has come," Manuel said. "I think Jim is right, there are times when student a student-athlete feels like we’re the ones holding them back from an opportunity to go professional. So I agree with the rationale and the reason to do it is to allow these young people the ability to have the option if they can take it at some point while they're in college. The argument can be made that there are certain players who are transformative players who (could have gone pro) out of high school but could definitely have come out after their freshman year. ... So, I think it’s good that we have the opportunity to have the dialogue and he’s put it out there for people to discuss.

"I just think our student-athletes have a right, just like any other student-athlete in any other sport, to be able to, if they're ready, to move on to the pro ranks. So I support Jim in the concept of having the discussion."

Harbaugh's second proposal “promotes higher education as a top priority.” He wrote and offers the player who leaves college before graduating and signs an NFL contract to complete his degree during or after his pro career. The university would pay for the education based on how long he played in college. Harbaugh uses as an example a player who completed one year of college is entitled to a year of additional paid schooling. Also, a player who completed four years in college also can receive one year of fully funded education.

"That's something we'll continue to support at Michigan," Manuel said, "and we're proud of that."

As outlined in his third proposal, Harbaugh wants the rules to allow a student-athlete and his family to consult with lawyers and agents before signing a pro contract as long as he doesn’t receive compensation. His feeling is that players should be armed with as much knowledge as possible while considering pursing a pro career.

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There are other considerations that Harbaugh mentioned to further discussion on how best to improve the college football player experience, including five years of eligibility without a redshirt. He also believes the rule limiting programs to a combined maximum of 25 scholarships annually for incoming freshmen and transfers should be eliminated.

Harbaugh, who said these are his views and not necessarily those of the university, thanked his father, longtime coach Jack Harbaugh, and Manuel for their input as he formulated his proposals.

“I welcome all concerned to participate in a meaningful discussion and I also welcome the opportunity to participate,” Harbaugh said at the letter’s conclusion.