For a second straight year, Jim Harbaugh's Michigan program made the College Football Playoff. And for the second straight year, the coach is reportedly following up that success by flirting with a return to the NFL.
Harbaugh has spoken with Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper about potentially filling the team's vacant head coach position, according to the Associated Press and ESPN. Both reports stress that the conversation wasn't a formal interview.
The Panthers are searching for a new head coach after firing Matt Rhule, the former Baylor coach who has since taken the Nebraska job. Per ESPN, Panthers interim head coach Steve Wilks, who has one year of head coaching experience with the Arizona Cardinals, is a strong candidate for the job after taking a roster that went 1-4 under Rhule and going 5-6 since.
While Tepper has indicated he isn't interested in pulling another head coach from the college ranks, Harbaugh is unique in that he has more NFL head coaching experience, and successful head coaching experience, than most of the other top candidates in the pros.
Will Jim Harbaugh make the jump back to the NFL this time?
In Harbaugh's first go-around as an NFL head coach with the San Francisco 49ers, he led the team to an overall record of 44-19-1 in four seasons, reaching Super Bowl XLVII in his second year and losing to his brother John's Baltimore Ravens.
After reaching the NFC championship game for three straight seasons, the Niners struggled to an 8-8 record. Harbaugh soon left for his alma mater at Michigan after a reported power struggle with Niners management.
It took a while for Harbaugh to find success in Ann Arbor, but the Wolverines finally defeated Ohio State in 2021 after six straight losses under Harbaugh and made the College Football Playoff for the first time in program history. They lost the semifinal to eventual national champion Georgia. After the season, Harbaugh interviewed for the Minnesota Vikings head coaching job, but ended up returning to Michigan while Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O'Connell took the position.
History basically repeated this season. Michigan convincingly beat Ohio State to finish another strong regular season, made the College Football Playoff and lost in the semifinal, this time to TCU in a 51-45 thriller. Now, Harbaugh could be on track for an interview with another NFL team.
Harbaugh signed a five-year, $36.7 million contract extension with Michigan after the Vikings interview last offseason. The deal holds a $3 million buyout until Jan. 11, per ESPN, at which point it decreases to $2.25 million.
He denied having interest in an NFL job in early December, but tellingly added "no man knows the future."
However much he has talked to Harbaugh, Tepper is required by league rules to interview at least two minority candidates for the job before making a hire, something the AP notes he can't do until after wild-card weekend.