The rise, fall and rise again of Jim Harbaugh shows how quickly college coaches go from hot to not

When Jim Harbaugh took a pay cut from Michigan after the 2020 season, getting another chance to be an NFL head coach seemed like a long shot for him.

If Nick Saban had retired after the 2022 season it’s doubtful Kalen DeBoer would have been his replacement at Alabama. And few college football fans would have been clamoring for their school to hire Jedd Fisch — as Washington fans were after DeBoer left for Alabama earlier this month — a year ago when he was 6-18 in his first two seasons at Arizona.

College football has always been a what-have-you-done-lately business, but these days — fueled by nonstop hot-seat coverage and constant social-media scrutiny —- a coach’s stock rises and falls like a rollercoaster.

“Jim Harbaugh didn’t forget how to coach a couple years ago and then say, ‘Oh, I remember how to coach again now to win a championship,'” former Florida coach and ESPN analyst Dan Mullen said. “There’s perception and there's reality in the coaching profession.”

“As a coach, you have to be very aware of both of them because reality is the situation you’re living in, but perception is where everybody thinks your team or your program or you are at as a coach. You see so many different (coaches change jobs), because why wouldn’t you as a coach kind of strike when it’s hot.”

Harbaugh leaving to become coach of the Los Angeles Chargers wasn't surprising. He flirted with a return to the league the previous two seasons as he finally began to fully deliver on the high expectations he brought to his alma mater in 2015. He leaves Michigan after three straight seasons of beating Ohio State, winning the Big Ten and reaching the playoff. He capped it with the school's first national title since 1997.

Harbaugh has been a head coach in college and the NFL for 20 years, including a three-year stint with FCS San Diego before landing the Stanford job in 2007. In every case he took over a struggling program or franchise. His overall record is 162-50 (.764).

Still, five straight losses to Ohio State to start his tenure at Michigan and a 2-4 pandemic-shortened season in 2020 had Michigan pondering a change, with no NFL teams lining up to get him.

Fast forward to 2024 and instead of being considered an overhyped bust, the 60-year-old Harbaugh landed maybe the best available NFL job, with a potential franchise quarterback in Justin Herbert in place.

Meanwhile, Harbaugh's most likely replacement is 37-year-old offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore, who has never been a head coach but went 4-0 this season filling in for his suspended boss, including a victory against Ohio State.

“You just trust in the players,” Moore said before the Rose Bowl about how he handled being thrust into the spotlight. “The players give you full confidence, too, to call the game however you want to call it and make the decisions, and those kids really — they’re the reason why it was easier for me than it probably would have been.”

Moore came to Michigan in 2018 as tight ends coach with only short stints at Louisville and Central Michigan on his resume. Now his stock is soaring.

DeBoer's rise has been similarly meteoric.

There have probably been more than a million words written and spoken over the years, speculating about who might replace Saban when the seven-time national champion finally decided to release college football from his steely grip. It is safe to say DeBoer's name was never mentioned as he steadily climbed the ladder from NAIA to the Pac-12 over a decade.

But after going 25-3 in two seasons at Washington, the 49-year-old DeBoer was suddenly presented with the opportunity of a lifetime and deemed an obvious choice for Alabama.

“I knew this was the right move,” DeBoer said earlier this month. “I knew this was a thing that, not that I had to do, but that I really wanted to do. But it wasn’t easy.”

DeBoer left Washington fans feeling jilted, but the reality is if DeBoer had stayed to rebuild Washington and slipped to six or seven wins next season, the shine would have come off quickly.

Same goes for Fisch, who went 10-3 at Arizona, the program's best season in a decade, before jumping into DeBoer's vacated job in Seattle.

“They hire who’s hot,” Mullen said.

And those temperatures fluctuate drastically from year to year.

Mullen can attest.

When Michigan was deciding whether to keep Harbaugh after the 2020 season, Mullen's name was one that came up as a potential candidate to replace him. Mullen was coming off his third season at Florida, having produced a 29-6 record, three New Year's Six Bowl appearances and one SEC East title.

Mullen didn't even make it to the end of year four, fired with the Gators at 5-6 and the program seemingly trending in the wrong direction.

Rarely do schools choose patience.

“Michigan being probably the prime example of not jumping the gun,” Mullen said. “Of saying, ‘our coach, we like him. He probably is a good fit. Let’s not jump the gun and look at the media and just get rid of them. Let’s be a little bit more patient.' And that paid off.”


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