Wojo: Harbaugh slams brakes on NFL rumors, has 'big plans' at Michigan

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Right on cue, as the regular season ends and the recruiting season ramps up, the silly season begins. Rumors start floating about Jim Harbaugh going to the NFL and Harbaugh swats them away, as convincingly as possible.

It’s predictable and mildly amusing, although Harbaugh certainly doesn’t find it funny. He lives an unlikely football duality — simultaneously criticized by some and coveted by many. For a guy who hasn’t won the big game yet at Michigan, or The Game, he sure is popular on coaching candidate lists, from Green Bay to Cleveland to whichever job opens next.

I don’t doubt NFL teams would be interested. I strongly doubt Harbaugh is currently interested in reciprocating. They’re easy rumors to stir and easy ones to squash, and Harbaugh squashed them again, perhaps as forcefully as ever, when speaking to ESPN’s Adam Schefter over the weekend.

"I'm on record right here, right now: I'm not going anywhere," Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh says.

“I’m on record right here, right now: I’m not going anywhere,” Harbaugh, 54, said. “I’m staying at Michigan. We have big plans here, and there’s a lot we want to accomplish.”

The Wolverines are 10-2, and could hit 11 victories for the first time under Harbaugh with a win over Florida in the Peach Bowl. They return plenty of talent next season and have an enticing home schedule. You can see why Harbaugh is thinking big, and why the distraction is an annoyance.

He suggested, as he has before, the timing isn’t coincidental and the intentions aren’t pure, driven by people connected to rival programs. He said it was “a choreographed message that comes up at this time every year before signing day,” with the signing period to begin Dec. 19. While the Wolverines are putting together a top-10 class, they just lost their premier recruit, five-star safety Daxton Hill, who announced Saturday he was flipping to Alabama.

Full of promise

It was noted investigative blabber Cris Carter, the former Ohio State receiver, who floated the latest rumor, saying on FS1, “Watch out for Jim Harbaugh because Jim Harbaugh, potentially, is trying to get his way out of Michigan.” And Carter is “potentially” banking on Harbaugh’s polarizing persona to generate interest.

SEC megaphone Paul Finebaum has Harbaugh packed off to the NFL about once a month with thinly veiled motives — pit the SEC against the Big Ten, pit Harbaugh’s reputation and brashness against his own record, and woo-wee, ratings bonanza!

Even though Carter’s comments sounded baseless, they’re not completely harmless, which is why Harbaugh felt compelled to fire back. He didn’t want to reiterate it after the team’s awards banquet Sunday in Crisler Center, but was asked why he responded at all.

“To make a statement of it, to go on record, to not be asked anymore after that by people that like to yap and ask questions,” Harbaugh said.

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The reports probably never will end because of his unfinished business with the 49ers — 44-19-1 record, three NFC championship game appearances, one Super Bowl loss. In a way, Harbaugh should be flattered that his coaching reputation remains so strong after four seasons here, with a 38-13 record.

Has he done enough to push Michigan to power status and the playoffs? Nope, not yet.

Has he done enough to hint at greater possibilities ahead? Yep.

For all the muttering about Harbaugh’s record, and his inability to win the Big Ten, and that ugly 62-39 loss at Ohio State, he has rocketed the program’s profile, upgraded the talent and beaten just about everybody except Ohio State. His 38 victories rank seventh among Power 5 conference coaches the past four seasons.

Now, perhaps more than ever, bigger plans are expected. If Harbaugh ever had the itch to revisit the NFL — and you can’t categorically say he never will — this certainly wouldn’t be the time to do it.

He returns loads of offensive talent, likely including quarterback Shea Patterson. The Wolverines will have a trio of dynamic receivers — Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black and Nico Collins. They return four of five starting offensive linemen and six defensive starters, if Devin Bush Jr. joins Rashan Gary and heads to the pros.

Oh, and this might be the most-attractive lure. Michigan’s three primary rivals — Notre Dame, Michigan State, Ohio State — all come to Ann Arbor. Harbaugh also is planning the team’s next big offseason excursion, to South Africa in the spring.

Unfinished business

And does anyone really think Harbaugh would consider bolting his alma mater after going 0-4 against Ohio State? In case you missed the news, Urban Meyer has departed, and when any program, even one as dominant as Ohio State, loses an all-time great, it opens possibilities for others.

Harbaugh declined to comment Sunday on Meyer’s retirement, and tried to stick to the task ahead, beating Florida for a third time. It’s easy to say NFL rumors come with his track record — he did leave San Francisco after four seasons — and shouldn’t bother Harbaugh. Two years ago at the team banquet, he said he wasn’t leaving and a lot of the talk “is coming from our enemies.” He referenced unnamed coaches of other programs and said they were known as “jive turkeys.”

He wasn’t as light-hearted this time, and I understand why. Sometimes the rumors get ridiculous. Several Green Bay “insiders” have suggested the Packers might be interested in Harbaugh if he’s interested in them. Others have been more explicit and less reliable, and way more personally motivated to push the agenda.

“I’d love to do a reality series about (Harbaugh,)” Finebaum said on ESPN. “But I think he would very anxiously get out of (Michigan).”

That doesn’t mesh with anything said by anyone who knows Harbaugh. He lives near his old Ann Arbor neighborhood with his parents next door. He takes his kids to the same schools he attended. He’s the third-highest paid coach in college football and has the full support of athletic director Warde Manuel.

“Jim is one of the greatest coaches, college or pro, so I think it’s to his credit that his name continually pops up,” Manuel said Sunday. “I just hope people understand, particularly our recruits, not to get dissuaded because people put out these rumors. … I have full faith in Jim and the person he is and the leader he is. I look forward to him coaching until he retires from Michigan, and ends his career here.”

That’s the final word for now. It could be the final word forever. Or there could be more words the next offseason. Someone, it seems, is always trying to make plans for Harbaugh. He seems far more determined to complete big plans here.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski