If the NFL rumor mill gets you twitchy, remember this: Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh is set to collect $9 million this year on a contract that runs through 2021.
Bill Belichick, the gold standard for pro football success, control and paranoia, reportedly took home $7.5 million last year. Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll made a reported $8 million in 2015 and is signed through 2019.
“I think it’s going to be (about) money,” longtime talent evaluator Russ Lande of GM Jr Scouting said the other day, “and I think it’s going to be (about) control.”
At the moment, Harbaugh has both. In oodles. A Wolverines depth chart requires a Congressional subpoena countersigned by the Duke of Gloucester. Access to the Big Blue inner circle is granted, like a New York discotheque, on relative fame and coolness, and scribes, by and large, are blessed with neither.
College silly season is being elbowed by the congenital round of NFL sillies, and Black Monday looms on Jan. 2. Several teams have started their holiday shopping early, of course: The Buffalo Bills are hunting (again) for the second coming of Marv Levy; the Jacksonville Jaguars for the second coming of Tom Coughlin, although the latter might well end up being Coughlin himself.
The Rams have a new city and the same general lack of direction that’s dogged the club since the end of the Warner-Bulger-Faulk fun ride. The Bears, Jets and 49ers could all clean house.
So in Harbaughland, the potential suitors are many and the primary questions are the same:
Do I have complete and total autonomy?
Can I cook the meal AND pick the guy who goes and buys the groceries from the list that I’ve given him?
Will you give me enough rocks to give Belichick stonewall envy?
Because it ain’t about money, unless you want to double down on the sublime with the ridiculous. According to an October piece in USA Today, in 2014-15, as many as 19 Division I public institutions spent less than $10 million on their athletic programs as a whole — and Michigan is teetering toward that mark on Harbaugh’s compensation alone.
‘He may stay forever, be a Bo Schembechler’
“I think, obviously, (Michigan) is his dream college job,” offered Dan Shonka, general manager and national scout with Ourlads.com, one of the movers and shakers with the East-West Shrine Game and a coaching confidant for four decades. “And I think he could — the thing is, he’s so competitive, unless he wins the national championship, I think he’ll stay there (until) he gets everything done.
“And he may stay forever, be a Bo Schembechler. But the one thing you always have got to wonder about (is) the ultra-competitiveness. The highest level (is) in the NFL and winning the Super Bowl, that may be in the back of his mind. If he had beaten brother John (with the Ravens) that one time, maybe it’s different.”
Maybe. At 53, Harbaugh is tricky to peg because a.) he acts perpetually 31; and b.) the act works just about everywhere.
Most college coaches enjoy the control-freak part of the quasi-amateur game so much that you can usually discount their NFL candidacies entirely, unless it’s a pure ego or cash grab. (See Saban, Nick and Petrino, Bobby.) As a general maxim, the college game is better for dictators; the pro game for schematic innovators, and while the latter approach works in the NCAA, the former approach doesn’t usually translate in a modern NFL with modern agents and modern agendas. Vince Lombardi is the stuff of legend and Broadway now, but Terrell Owens would’ve taken years off a life already cut short by cancer.
Harbaugh, though, is the rarest of beasts, a whistle that walks in both worlds. The aforementioned Niners were 14-18 in the two seasons (2009-10) before he turned up and are 7-24 in the two campaigns (2015-16) since. The franchise has gone to playoffs only five times this century, and Harbaugh was at the controls for three of those occasions.
“He’s a rarity,” Shonka continued. “He could do either.
“His enthusiasm and things like that, really translate to the college game tremendously and (with) the pro game, he’s constantly probing (schematic) things which you have to do in pro football. A lot of guys, they get stagnant after a while. He did a great job with the 49ers. Hey, he goes in there and he leaves and they get crappy. That just tells you, he’s a blue-blood football coach. And I really think (brother) John would be the same thing. I think John would be a great college coach … ironically enough, they’re two separate personalities.
“If you met John, you’d (find) things to relate to. Jim is just — what’s beyond ultra-competitive? He’s just out there. That’s the way he was as a football player, that’s the way he is as a coach.”
‘I’ll kick you in the other knee’
Shonka has a half-dozen Harbaugh stories knocking around, but this is one of this favorites. A friend of his coached with Jim and John’s dad Jack at Morehead State in the late ‘60s and swore that one time, when the Harbaugh boys were tagging around their father’s practice, they started goofing around in a ditch near the field. A school administrator came by and told them to get out of that thing, fearing they might hurt themselves.
“John would come right up, (but) Jim was down there messing around,” the scout recalled. “She said, ‘You come up or I’m going to tell your father and he’ll kick you in the knee.’ We’re talking about a guy, 7 or 8 years old, and (Jim) said, ‘If you do that, I’ll kick you in the other knee.’”
He’s still not all that crazy about backing down from a scrap, for better or for worse. Which goes back to the power thing, the control thing. Sometimes, Harbaugh plays well with others. When he doesn’t, egos get dented and bridges get nuked.
And yet there’s unfinished business. John has a Super Bowl ring that he doesn’t, still, a carrot that’s never stopped dangling.
“(Jim) just can’t sit still,” Shonka said. “He’s highly motivated and his competitiveness is just completely off the charts … people that know John, they would tell you he is one of the finest human beings in the world. And I don’t think anybody would say that about Jim, you know what I mean? Which is fine.
“He could surrender to his competitiveness (and go), ‘OK, we won one national championship, screw Nick Saban, I’m going to try to keep (Michigan) up there, too. He gives attention to details beyond details. He doesn’t print depth charts or anything, he hides everything. But yet, with us, (with) the East-West stuff, he’s great. He helps promote the players he wants to get in the game. He wants to do everything he can for his guys. If it was gut instinct, I would say he would stay at Michigan, but you always wonder about the ultra-competitiveness.”
You wonder about the muse, the son of a coaching lifer who knows never to feel too comfortable in one place for too long. You wonder about the inner 7-year-old who can’t let go.
“I don’t think he’s going to go into a situation where he could end up in a battle with a general manager,” Lande said. “And that’s why I would rule out the Rams, because no matter what they’re willing to give him, money-wise and maybe they even give him power over (GM) Les Snead, which I think would be a mistake, because Les is really good. But there’s no way they’re going to give him power over (vice president of football operations) Kevin Demoff. It’s not going to happen — Demoff is (owner Stan) Kroenke’s right-hand man. As far as business, there’ll be other places where they’ll be able to make a run where they hand the keys to the entire franchise to (him).”
And those, if you’re a Wolverines fan, are the dangerous ones, the real threats. For the rest, the bidding starts at $11 million. Line forms on the left.