Michigan Head Coach Candidates if Jim Harbaugh Leaves for NFL

min read
Andrew Doughty Jun 15, 2021, 1:21 PM
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Since he was nine years old, Jim Harbaugh dreamt of coaching Michigan. Either that’s no longer his dream or he’s willing to risk it as contract leverage. 

In late December 2014, during his introductory press conference as Michigan head coach, Harbaugh spoke of his excitement in returning to his alma mater. He referenced “great expectations” in inheriting a program that tumbled from a national championship contender to a Big Ten punchline with poor college football odds. Harbaugh has failed to reach those expectations but has more time to do so...if he wants it.

A multi-year contract extension was offered to Harbaugh, whose original seven-year deal expires after the 2021 season, but he hasn’t signed it, according to the Detroit Free-Press. Harbaugh’s “interest” in an NFL opening, specifically the New York Jets or Los Angeles Chargers, is holding up the deal.

If Harbaugh lands an NFL job (or the offer is revoked and Harbaugh is fired), who might Michigan target as their next head coach?

It would be the first football hire for athletics director Warde Manuel. A former Wolverines’ football player and teammate of Harbaugh in 1986, Manuel returned to Ann Arbor in January 2016 after four years as UConn athletics director and seven years as Buffalo athletics director. For what it’s worth, Manuel has made three football hires in his career: Bob Diaco at UConn and Turner Gill and Jeff Quinn at Buffalo. He hired Juwan Howard as John Beilein’s replacement in 2019 but has never led a search of this magnitude.

Matt Campbell is the big fish. Long rumored to be in line for an Ohio State opening, Campbell has spent his entire career in the Midwest, has strong staff continuity, and is the hottest potentially attainable candidate in college football. He’ll presumably get a raise and extension after Iowa State’s appearance in the Big 12 Championship but won’t come close to Harbaugh’s current salary of more than $8 million. Campbell has never flirted with other jobs and has rejected dozens of interview requests and job offers from college football and NFL teams in recent years. There’s no reason to believe he’d leave a comfortable job at a rising program but Michigan must inquire.

Luke Fickell rejected Michigan State last winter, returned to Cincinnati, and like Campbell is in line for an extension and raise after a sensational season. Fickell is a Columbus native, Ohio State alumni, and former longtime Buckeyes’ assistant who’s spent his entire career in the state of Ohio. If he wants a big-time Midwest job and doesn’t want to wait for a potential Ryan Day NFL departure, might Michigan interest him? Like Campbell, the Wolverines must inquire.

Tom Allen could make a short list, as could fellow Power Five coaches P.J. Fleck, Dave Clawson, Justin Wilcox, and Eliah Drinkwitz. Fleck won big at Western Michigan, has recruited above his programs’ respective historical expectations and punching weights, and would bring a much-needed burst of energy to a tired program. His polarizing and oftentimes criticized demeanor turns off some decision-makers and high-dollar donors and would require an all-in transitional investment. Wilcox and Drinkwitz probably need one or two strong seasons but could be of interest if Michigan is willing to jump early.

Billy Napier has flirted with openings and rejected several interview and job requests during his three years at Louisiana. He’s never coached in or anywhere near Michigan and has just 39 games of head-coaching experience but has coached under Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney. Napier is young, attainable, and affordable. 

Others to consider: Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy, Louisville head coach Scott Satterfield, West Virginia head coach Neal Brown, Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal, Carolina Panthers’ offensive coordinator Joe Brady, Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, former Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn, and Kansas State head coach Chris Klieman.

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Andrew Doughty is a writer for BetMGM and host of High Motor, a college football podcast available on Apple Podcasts and everywhere else. He has written for Sports Illustrated, HERO Sports, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter: @adoughty88.

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Andrew Doughty

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Andrew Doughty is a writer for BetMGM and host of High Motor by BetMGM, an NFL and college football podcast available on Apple Podcasts and everywhere else.

Andrew Doughty is a writer for BetMGM and host of High Motor by BetMGM, an NFL and college football podcast available on Apple Podcasts and everywhere else.