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Jim Harbaugh Faces Most Difficult Task Yet: Making The Chargers Interesting

9:14 AM EST on January 25, 2024

Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines reacts during warm-ups prior to the 2024 CFP National Championship game against the Washington Huskies at NRG Stadium on January 08, 2024 in Houston, Texas.
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

News broke Wednesday night that Jim Harbaugh has finally followed through on his annual flirtation with the NFL and will become the next head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers. It's a well-timed exit from college football, in that Harbaugh is leaving Michigan after winning the school's first national title since 1997, and before Michigan fans start getting ideas about demanding another one from him.

One can only speculate as to Harbaugh's motivations for leaving the program where he's coached for nine seasons. Money doesn't seem to have been a deciding factor, given the reported size of the contract he was being offered by Michigan. Ambition certainly played a role, given how tantalizingly close he came to winning a Super Bowl during his stint in San Francisco. And then there's the broader realities of college football, where the only thing harder than being a big program that hasn't won the big one is being a big program that's expected to win the big one. By leaving now, Harbaugh escapes the three true outcomes of the big-time college football coach: a humiliating and stage-managed exit; being driven mad by the ungrateful swine who always want more; or, and this is the hardest one to achieve, riding off into the sunset after nearly two decades of unimpeachable dominance.

In avoiding all of that, Harbaugh also avoids having to deal with the increasingly shifting and fevered nature of college football. His previous attempts to do so resulted in a pair of three-game suspensions last season, and it's likely that he, like Saban, has awakened to the fact that a college gig isn't as cushy as it used to be. There was a time when a place like Michigan was the perfect spot for an NFL-capable coach like Harbaugh to escape to. It offered plug-and-play access to recruiting networks and boosters that make for a more reliable method of roster-building than free agency and the draft, as well as an unpaid labor force that was pliable and easily discarded. But now that labor force has access to NIL money, and the transfer portal is no longer just a place for coaches to shove their unwanted players. For as overheated as the conversations about NIL and the increased use of the transfer portal can be, the job of being a college football coach is different now than it was a few years ago. If this era belonged to the likes of Harbaugh and Saban, then future eras will belong to coaches like Dan Lanning, who are already figuring out how to leverage job interviews into poaching raids on other programs.

But enough about what Harbaugh is leaving behind. The more interesting questions are about what he's walking into. On the one hand, he's blessed to be taking over an NFL team that is already equipped with the game's most precious resource: a franchise quarterback. Justin Herbert is 25 years old and has proven that he's capable of piloting a truly dynamic NFL offense, and it is now Harbaugh's job to get his star quarterback's career back on track. That might be the easy part. The hard part will be trying to overcome the decades of inertia, apathy, and mismanagement that have turned the Chargers into the least-cared about team in the NFL.

Harbaugh will be trading The Big House, and the 107,000 rabid Michigan fans that it houses, for a stadium that the Chargers don't even own and is only ever full when fans of the opposing team decide to make a trip to Los Angeles. This is a franchise that's invisible when it's bad and barely tolerated when it's good, owned by a failson who hasn't made a single good decision in his life, and marooned in a city it never should have set foot in in the first place.

Hiring Harbaugh is as much about Dean Spanos wanting to win games as it is about him wanting someone, anyone, to finally notice his football team. Harbaugh's a decent choice in that regard, and he's already gone about bringing some of his bug-eyed, milk-chugging spirit to the proceedings in releasing a statement that includes the line, "The only job you start at the top is digging a hole, so we know we've got to earn our way."

Harbaugh's presence on the sideline will certainly get the Chargers a few more mentions on SportsCenter in the upcoming season, but the only thing that can come close to fixing what ails the Chargers is winning. Harbaugh's done it before, and there are plenty of reasons to believe he can do it again. He's certainly proven that he'll go to great lengths to gain any advantage over his opponents, and that impulse has long served others well in the NFL. AFC West opponents should keep a close eye on the opposite sideline. If they spot a mysterious man wearing sunglasses and a goatee, they'll have already lost.

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