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Jim Harbaugh returning to NFL to coach Chargers

Harbaugh was hired Wednesday as the first former Chargers player to return to the team as its head coach.
Jim Harbaugh returning to NFL to coach Chargers, sources say
Posted at 5:46 PM, Jan 24, 2024

Jim Harbaugh was hired as head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers on Wednesday, leaving Michigan after capping his ninth season as coach of college football’s winningest program with the school’s first national championship since 1997.

Harbaugh signed a five-year deal a person close to the negotiations told The Associated Press. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because the Chargers did not announce the terms.

Harbaugh made the highly anticipated decision to go back to the NFL after a second interview and resume his chase for a Super Bowl that eluded him as a quarterback and coach.

He will be the first former Chargers player to return to the team as head coach. He played for the Bolts in 1999-2000 before retiring following the 2001 season.

“My love for Michigan, playing there and coming back to coach there leaves a lasting impact. I’ll always be a loyal Wolverine,” Harbaugh said in a statement. “I’m remarkably fortunate to have been afforded the privilege of coaching at places where life’s journey has created strong personal connections for me. When I played for the Chargers, the Spanos family could not have been more gracious or more welcoming.

"Being back here feels like home, and it’s great to see that those things haven’t changed."

Harbaugh is the first coach in 26 seasons to win a national title and not return to the school the following season. Nebraska's Tom Osborne retired following the 1997 season after the Cornhuskers split the national title with Michigan.

Los Angeles was looking for a new coach and general manager after Brandon Staley and Tom Telesco were fired on Dec. 15, a day after a 63-21 loss in Las Vegas to the Raiders.

Harbaugh was first asked about possible interest in the Chargers job as his team was preparing for the Rose Bowl, but did comment. He first met with the Chargers on Jan. 15.

Harbaugh was the eighth of 15 coaching candidates to interview with the Spanos family. He was the only one to get a second interview.

The Atlanta Falcons also talked to Harbaugh on Jan. 16 and had booked a second interview before he decided to accept the Chargers job.

“Jim Harbaugh is football personified, and I can think of no one better to lead the Chargers forward,” owner Dean Spanos said in a statement while also borrowing from one of Harbaugh's catch phrases. “Who has it better than us?”

The Chargers are the fourth of eight teams to fill their head coach job, following New England, Las Vegas and Tennessee. Atlanta, Carolina, Seattle and Washington remain with an opening.

Harbaugh called Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel to inform him he was leaving to lead the Chargers. Michigan tried to keep Harbaugh, offering him a new six-year contract for $11.5 million per season, according to a person familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to share details of the deal.

Manuel may promote Sherrone Moore to replace Harbaugh after the offensive coordinator filled in for him during the final three games of the regular season when he was suspended by the Big Ten for violating the conference’s sportsmanship policy over alleged sign-stealing in a case that dominated the second half of last season.

“We are working quickly to hire the next head coach for the program and will do everything possible to keep this current staff and team together,” Manuel said in a statement. “We appreciate Jim’s dedication and passion for Michigan, the university and Ann Arbor, and I wish Jim and the entire Harbaugh family much success with the Los Angeles Chargers.”

SEE MORE: In midseason shakeup, Doc Rivers to leave ESPN to join the Bucks

Harbaugh was 86-25 at Michigan and restored college football’s winningest program to relevance after it slipped over several seasons.

Following two straight losses in the College Football Playoff semifinals, extending Harbaugh’s winless streak in bowl games to six, Michigan outlasted Alabama at the Rose Bowl and pulled away from Washington to win the national championship with a school-record 15-0 mark.

Harbaugh’s alma mater could not offer the one thing he desperately wants — a Super Bowl title.

The Chargers have one of the league’s top quarterbacks in Justin Herbert, but finished 5-12 this season and lost eight of their last nine, including the last five. Herbert will be playing for his fourth head coach and possibly fourth offensive coordinator in five seasons.

The Bolts though have made only three playoff appearances since 2013 and haven't won a division title since 2009.

Harbaugh will inherit a team that most of all needs a culture change. They were 0-7 in games decided by three points or fewer this season, tying the 1984 Houston Oilers for worst mark since the merger.

The offense this past season regressed because of injuries at wide receiver and on the offensive line. Herbert broke the index finger on his right hand and missed the last four games, but even when he was at the helm, Los Angeles was ranked 18th in total offense after six straight years being in the top 11.

The defense was ranked 28th, marking the first time since 1986 it has been ranked 20th or worse three straight years.

Harbaugh and the new general manager will have the fifth overall pick in April’s draft, the fourth time since 2016 the Chargers have had a pick in the top seven. Los Angeles will also move into a new year-around headquarters in El Segundo before the start of training camp.

“The only job you start at the top is digging a hole, so we know we’ve got to earn our way. Be better today than yesterday. Be better tomorrow than today," Harbaugh said in a statement. "My priorities are faith, family and football, and we are going to attack each with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.”

Harbaugh returned to Michigan, where he was a star quarterback in the mid-1980s, in 2015 after going 44-19 over four years in San Francisco. He left the 49ers amid tension with the front office. He went to three straight NFC championship games and lost the Super Bowl to Baltimore, and his coach/brother, John, nearly 11 years ago.

The Harbaugh brothers will face each other for the first time since that Super Bowl during the 2024 season when the Chargers host the Ravens. The date and time will be announced in early May when the NFL regular season schedule is released.

He also came close to the Super Bowl as a player, nearly lifting the Indianapolis Colts to a win at Pittsburgh on a game-ending desperation pass in the AFC championship game on Jan. 14, 1996.

Harbaugh was one of eight candidates who had previous head coaching experience in college or the NFL, including former Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel and former Stanford coach David Shaw, who was an assistant under Harbaugh at the University of San Diego and Stanford.

The Chargers also interviewed two in-house candidates — interim coach Giff Smith and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore.

Nine GM candidates have interviewed, including interim GM JoJo Wooden. The others are New York Giants assistant GM Brandon Brown, Baltimore director of player personnel Joe Hortiz, Chicago assistant GM Ian Cunningham, Buffalo director of player personnel Terrance Gray, New Orleans Saints assistant GM Jeff Ireland, Indianapolis Colts assistant GM Ed Dodds, Chicago co-director of player personnel Jeff King and NFL chief football administrative officer Dawn Aponte.

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