Jim Harbaugh did everything Michigan fans could have hoped the former Wolverines quarterback would do when he returned to Ann Arbor to take over his alma mater’s football program. He came to hate arch-rival Ohio State’s dominance in their series and turned the tables; he turned Michigan into the bully of the Big Ten; and then led Michigan to its first national title in nearly 30 years.
And now, not surprisingly, after three years of flirting with returning to the NFL, Harbaugh is back meeting with NFL teams. He’ll start with the Los Angeles Chargers on Monday, opening up the real possibility of leaving behind a storied program and one of the best jobs in college sports. He leaves, who could Michigan turn to next?
The obvious path
This would be promoted Wolverines offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore.
Moore has emerged as a strong candidate, especially after the final month of the regular season. The 37-year-old is still young, but he proved himself more than capable of the job when he stepped in and coached Michigan at the end of the 2023 season after the Big Ten suspended Harbaugh during the most difficult stretch of the Wolverines’ schedule. Moore led the team to a win over top-10 Penn State in a very hostile environment, ran the road trap game against Maryland and then continued Michigan’s dominance of the Buckeyes. The team loves Moore; Spend some time with the program and you will see that its impact is significant.
“I was pretty close to leaving,” offensive lineman Trevor Keegan, one of the team’s leaders, told me about an hour after Michigan won the national title. “The recruiting process is a dangerous thing. Everyone tells you how good you are. That you will start as a freshman. When I was 18, I wasn’t the most mature kid. I wasn’t playing. I stopped loving football. Entering Schembechler Hall was a bit of a pain for me. Coach Moore came in and changed my whole outlook on life and football. He made me fall in love with football again. I can’t thank him enough. He’s just a guy who puts his head down and works too. “He started here as a head coach and now he’s an OC getting head coach offers.”
Moore, a Kansas native who played at Oklahoma, is beloved by his players and fellow coaches. I’d be surprised if he didn’t get the job. There were some relatively similar situations to point out: Most notably Ryan Day took over at Ohio State after Urban Meyer left for the NFL, and Marcus Freeman took over at Notre Dame after Brian Kelly left for LSU. Day is 56-8, although Buckeye fans aren’t happy with the losing streak to Michigan these days. Freeman is 19-8 and it’s still a little too early to know if this was the right move for the Irish. Continuity and the players’ perception of the move were important factors, but both needed to grow in the job.
However, the overall results of major internally promoted jobs after the coach left are mostly positive.
Florida State promoted Jimbo Fisher after Bobby Bowden retired, and it worked out very well for the Seminoles: Fisher led them to a national title. Stanford promoted David Shaw after Harbaugh left for the NFL a decade ago. This also worked well, although the program later regressed under Shaw. Bret Bielema took over for Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin and it went well. Lincoln Riley took over for Bob Stoops at Oklahoma and the Sooners continued to win at a very high level.
Chip Kelly took Oregon to another level after Mike Bellotti resigned, and then Mark Helfrich took the Ducks to the national title game, though the Ducks bowed out shortly after. In contrast, Bob Davie who took over for Lou Holtz at Notre Dame a generation ago didn’t do so well (one top 20 season in five years). Jimmy Lake wasn’t promoted either after Chris Petersen retired to Washington a few years ago.
The only thing that might give Michigan’s brass pause is if Moore is tied to the NCAA’s ongoing investigation into the sign-stealing scandal. If the investigation finds that Moore – who has not been linked to the project – was somehow involved, Michigan may want to start over.
Lance Leipold of Kansas you did wonders in Lawrence. He won six Division III national titles at Wisconsin-Whitewater, took Buffalo — one of the toughest FBS jobs — into the Top 25 and then resurrected Kansas, the worst Power 5 program. The Jayhawks went from 2-10 to 6- 7 to 9-4 in three seasons. They were ranked 23rd in the final AP poll of the 2023 season and beat Oklahoma for the first time in a generation. The 59-year-old has Midwestern roots, having grown up in Wisconsin. He knows how to build a culture, play physical football and do a lot more with less. Kansas had not won more than three games in a season in 11 years before Leipold arrived.
The fact that he’s still in Lawrence should make Kansas the biggest winner of the Coaches of the Year carousel so far. Atletico reported Sunday that Leipold withdrew from Washington’s coaching search before Jedd Fisch was hired.
Kansas State’s Chris Klieman, like Leipold, came from big victories in football’s lower divisions. He won four FCS titles in the state of North Dakota. The 56-year-old led the Wildcats to the Big 12 title in 2022, going 10-4. Last year, the Wildcats were 9-4 and had a second consecutive top-20 finish. Klieman is in good shape at K-State under athletic director Gene Taylor, with whom he has worked previously, but the possibility of moving to a blue blood program with better resources in the Big Ten could be very tempting.
LSU’s Brian Kelly He hopped from South Bend to Baton Rouge to try to improve his chances of winning a national title. Kelly had an impressive debut season in Baton Rouge in 2022, going 10-4 and winning the SEC West. Last season, expectations were much higher and the Tigers went 10-3, but that was disappointing given that they had Heisman winner Jayden Daniels at quarterback and a lot of key players behind them. They were terrible on defense, got blown out by Florida State early, gave up 55 in a loss to Ole Miss and had just one win over a ranked opponent, Missouri.
Kelly, 62, is a great coach, but the standard in Baton Rouge is incredibly high. The last three coaches have all won national titles. Making it to the 12-team College Football Playoff but not winning a title won’t be enough. Meeting him in Louisiana felt strange, even strange, from the moment he arrived. Now he has to review his technical staff. Top recruits still want to come to LSU, but I’ve heard a lot of chatter that if he could get into Michigan, he probably would. Kelly spent nearly two decades at Michigan State while coaching at Grand Valley State. How attractive would it be compared to Michigan’s other options? I’m a little skeptical at this point.
Harbaugh may not have been right for everyone, but all the people in Michigan, especially its players, love him for his authenticity. With Kelly, it sounds like you’re talking about the exact opposite.
(Top photo by Sherrone Moore: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)