Joel Klatt: Jim Harbaugh could be pushing Michigan to ‘evolve’ by flirting with NFL

Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines have won 25 of their past 28 games, beaten Ohio State in consecutive years and made the College Football Playoff back-to-back, so why is the head coach taking NFL interviews — again?

Shortly after Michigan lost to TCU in the College Football Playoff semifinals earlier this month, Harbaugh interviewed with the Denver Broncos for their head-coaching position and spoke with Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper about that team’s coaching vacancy. Last year, Harbaugh interviewed with the Minnesota Vikings, which came after Michigan lost to Georgia in the CFP semifinals. After not getting the position with the Vikings, Harbaugh received a new contract from Michigan.

Why does he continue to flirt with the NFL?

On the latest edition of “The Joel Klatt Show,” Klatt stated that he believes Harbaugh is “doing everything he can to push his program, Michigan, in a positive direction” to get the university to evolve with other college football heavyweights. And about taking those NFL interviews? “Well, life is about leverage in a lot of ways,” Klatt said, explaining that Harbaugh could be leveraging this NFL interest to get Michigan to go deeper in its investment in college football.

That’s because the sport is rapidly changing, Klatt said.

“The point that we’re at in college football is a fork, it’s a crossroads. There was a crossroads back in the early 2000s in our sports and I believe there is a fork, there is a crossroads now,” he said. “These are major points that you have got to make a decision as a program: Are you evolving with the sport or are you not?

“I believe that Jim Harbaugh’s flirtation with the NFL is a direct result of his desire to move Michigan and their football program along in the evolution of the sport.”

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh’s future in college football

Joel Klatt discussed head coach Jim Harbaugh’s future at the University of Michigan.

So what would that look like?

“Get further commitments as far as investments into the staff. Get further commitments as far as investments into a collective and what’s going on with the NIL because the fact remains that if you look at the recruiting rankings they weren’t as good as you would probably expect for a team that just finished with the second-best record in college football over the last 18 months,” Klatt said. “Well, part of that is because Michigan, in a lot of ways, loves to rely on their reputation and their tradition, which is immense; they’re the winningest program in the history of college football. I get it. I’ve been around Michigan a lot.

“And yes, you could and should rely on the tradition of your program, but that being said, one of the reasons why Michigan went through what they did in the last 15 years before Jim Harbaugh arrived in Ann Arbor was because at the last inflection point, they did not invest like other people did.” 

Klatt also notes that Michigan has a handful of offensive starters returning for the 2023 season including running back Blake Corum, offensive linemen Trevor Keegan and Zak Zinter, and wide receiver Cornelius Johnson.

Harbaugh, who played quarterback at Michigan from 1983-86, took over as head coach in 2015. In his eight years on the job, Michigan is a combined 74-25, winning the Big Ten and reaching the College Football Playoff in each of the last two seasons. Across the eight seasons prior to Harbaugh’s arrival, Michigan went a combined 55-46. 

The Wolverines went 13-1 this season, going undefeated in the regular season and beating Purdue in the Big Ten Championship Game.

Michigan was a well-oiled machine on both sides of the ball. It averaged 458.8 total yards and 40.4 points per game, each second in the Big Ten, while leaning on the running game; Corum and Donovan Edwards combined for 2,454 yards and 25 touchdowns on the ground. 

On the other side of the ball, Michigan surrendered just 277.1 total yards (second in Big Ten) and 13.4 points (third) per game. The Wolverines were top five in the conference in all four of those categories in 2021, as well.

Klatt thinks Harbaugh has a good grasp on the future of the sport.

“Now you’ve got to be ahead of the individual autonomy of the player, and you’ve got to be in line with where that’s going,” Klatt said. “And the teams and the programs that do evolve, they’re gonna be the ones that run the sport for the next 10, 15 and 20 years. And the ones that don’t, that just rely on their tradition, are gonna be left behind, so Jim Harbaugh knows this. He’s a really smart guy, and I’m not sure he loves NIL, but guess what? He knows that this is a big moment in college football. 

“He knows what it took to get to this point where they’ve been to two straight playoff appearances. He knows what it’s taken to beat Ohio State twice. And he wants assurances that we’re gonna invest at Michigan in order to move it forward and evolve with the sport and not behind the sport.”

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