Jim Harbaugh says he'll return to Michigan after talks with Vikings

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh will return to the Wolverines for the upcoming season after a brief flirtation with the NFL.

Harbaugh had not signed a renegotiated contract from Michigan, and this decision ends more than a month of internet message board and social-media theories and hand wringing among fans regarding his future.

Harbaugh was in Minneapolis on Wednesday to interview for the vacant Minnesota Vikings head-coaching job. ESPN NFL insider Adam Schefter was the first to report the news Wednesday night.

Harbaugh confirmed in a text to The Detroit News, messaging one of his trademark comments.

"With an enthusiasm unknown to mankind!" Harbaugh wrote.

A report from NFL.com's Tom Pelissero later Wednesday said the Vikings did not make Harbaugh an offer after his nine-hour interview. 

The 58-year-old coach led Michigan to a 12-2 season, including the program’s first Big Ten championship since 2004 and a berth in the College Football Playoff semifinal against eventual national champion Georgia.

The Wolverines, coming off a 2-4 season, were unranked heading into the 2021 season and were No. 3 in the final AP Top 25 poll, the program’s highest ranking since the 1997 team won the AP national title. It’s their best final ranking since finishing No. 5 in 1999.

Through seven seasons, Harbaugh is 61-24 overall at Michigan and 42-17 in the Big Ten.

Harbaugh and athletic director Warde Manuel, who four years ago said he wanted Harbaugh “to end his career here,” met after the season as they always do to hammer out a renegotiated  contract. Along the way there was a national report this month suggesting Harbaugh could have interest in returning to the NFL — he had coached the San Francisco 49ers before taking over as Michigan head coach ahead of the 2015 season. With the 49ers, Harbaugh took the team to three NFC championship games and was a Super Bowl runner up to the Baltimore Ravens coached by his brother John Harbaugh.

After Black Monday on Jan. 10, when NFL coaches are fired, the Harbaugh-to-the-NFL rumors picked up steam, specifically regarding the Las Vegas Raiders for which he was quarterbacks coach in 2002 and 2003.

All of that created speculation regarding Harbaugh’s future at his alma mater. Another report earlier in the month said Harbaugh told a top signee he planned to entertain NFL opportunities. That he took so long to sign a new deal, despite being under contract, breathed life into the possibility he may bolt to the NFL.

The Jan. 13 hiring of Mike Elston, who played linebacker at Michigan in the early 1990s, from Notre Dame to coach the Wolverines’ defensive line, however, seemed a strong indication of Harbaugh remaining at Michigan. He also had been working to hire a new defensive coordinator to replace Mike Macdonald who left after one season to return to the Baltimore Ravens as coordinator. All along, Harbaugh continued to recruit and handle the day-to-day of his Michigan job, even last weekend during a recruiting weekend at Schembechler Hall.

A year ago, coming off the dreadful 2-4 season, Harbaugh signed a contract extension that featured a lower base salary of $4 million, roughly half what he earned in 2020. The extension, set to run through 2025, was heavily incentivized with a maximum bonus of $3.475 million and a lower buyout. He had been among the nation’s highest-paid coaches before his salary was slashed.

"I’d do it for free,” Harbaugh said last month during a pre-Orange Bowl news conference. “I would do this job for free. I love it. Whether it’s the first day, first game, or the position we’re in now, I feel really happy about that. I’ve enjoyed the ride the whole time. Every day is a blessing, and I’m happy for it, blessed for it.”

Harbaugh earned more than $2 million in bonuses in 2021, including $1 million for winning the Big Ten championship. He elected to generously return the additional money earned to the Michigan athletic department to distribute to those who had to take pay cuts in 2020 because of the athletic department financial struggles owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Actually, people have been very appreciative,” Harbaugh said last month when asked if he had heard from those beneficiaries of his return of his incentive earnings. “I was really happy to be blessed to be in a position to be able to do that.

“It really resonated with me, something our coach, my coach and a lot of our coach, Bo Schembechler has a saying here at Michigan. It says, ‘Those who stay will be champions,’ and it's always resonated with me from Day 1. Those that stayed through the pandemic when there was voluntary pay cuts, mandatory pay cuts, that kind of thing, just to be able to reward those that stayed in that way was something that Sarah, my wife, and I wanted to do.”

Harbaugh entered the 2021 season seeming to be rejuvenated by his team and young staff. In the offseason, he had cut ties with defensive coordinator Don Brown, hired Macdonald, a first-year coordinator and revamped the defensive staff. He also hired former Michigan players Ron Bellamy, who coaches safeties, and Mike Hart, Michigan’s all-time leading rusher, who coaches running backs.

The team was led by edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson, a consensus All-American, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and Heisman Trophy runner-up.

“It was a great season,” Harbaugh said after the semifinal loss. “To me it's one of the best seasons in Michigan football history. We were trying to make it greater. But it was still a great season.”

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @chengelis