Jim Harbaugh did everything Michigan fans could’ve hoped the former Wolverines star quarterback would do when he returned to Ann Arbor to take over his alma mater’s football program. He ended hated arch-rival Ohio State’s dominance in their series and flipped it around; he turned Michigan into the bully of the Big Ten; and then he led Michigan to its first national title in almost 30 years.
And now, not surprisingly, after three years of flirting with returning to the NFL, Harbaugh is back meeting with NFL teams. He is beginning by meeting with the Los Angeles Chargers on Monday, opening up the very real possibility that he will now leave behind a storied program and one of the best jobs in college sports. If he leaves, who could Michigan turn to next?
The obvious path
That would be promoting Wolverines offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore.
Moore has emerged as a strong candidate, especially after the last month of the regular season. The 37-year-old is still young, but he proved more than capable of the job when he stepped in and coached Michigan late in the 2023 season after the Big Ten suspended Harbaugh during the toughest stretch of the Wolverines’ schedule. Moore led the team to a win over top-10 Penn State in a very hostile environment, managed the road trap game against Maryland and then continued Michigan’s dominance over the Buckeyes. The team loves Moore; spend some time around the program and you see that his impact is significant.
“I was pretty close to leaving,” offensive lineman Trevor Keegan, one of the team leaders, told me about an hour after Michigan won the national title. “The recruiting process is a dangerous thing. Everybody tells you how good you are. That you’ll start as a freshman. As an 18-year-old kid, I wasn’t the most mature guy. I wasn’t playing. I kinda stopped loving football. Coming into Schembechler Hall was kind of a drag 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 as well. He started here as a tight ends coach and now he’s an OC getting head coaching offers.”
Moore, a Kansas native who played at Oklahoma, is beloved by his players and his coaching peers. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t get the job. There have been some relatively similar situations to point to — most notably Ryan Day taking over at Ohio State after Urban Meyer left for the NFL and Marcus Freeman taking over at Notre Dame after Brian Kelly left for LSU. Day is 56-8, although Buckeye fans are not happy about the losing streak with Michigan these days. Freeman is 19-8 and it’s still a little too soon to get a real sense of whether this was the right move for the Irish. Continuity and how the players felt about the move were big factors, but both have had to grow into the jobs.
The overall results of big jobs promoting from within after the head coach moves on are mostly positive, though.
Florida State promoted Jimbo Fisher after Bobby Bowden retired, and that 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. That also worked out well, although the program backslid later on under Shaw. Bret Bielema took over for Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin and that went well. Lincoln Riley took over for Bob Stoops at Oklahoma and the Sooners kept winning at a very high level.
Chip Kelly took Oregon to another level after Mike Bellotti stepped down, and then Mark Helfrich got the Ducks to the national title game, although the Ducks tailed off shortly thereafter. Conversely, Bob Davie taking over for Lou Holtz at Notre Dame a generation ago didn’t go so great (one top-20 season in five years). Neither did Jimmy Lake getting promoted after Chris Petersen retired at Washington a few years ago.
The only thing that may give Michigan brass some pause is if Moore is tied to the ongoing NCAA investigation into the sign-stealing scandal. If the investigation finds that Moore — who has not been tied to the scheme — was somehow involved, Michigan might want to start over with a clean slate.
Kansas’ Lance Leipold has worked miracles in Lawrence. He won six Division III national titles at Wisconsin-Whitewater, led 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 over three seasons. They ranked No. 23 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 much more with less. Kansas hadn’t 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 year’s coaching carousel thus far. The Athletic reported on Sunday that Leipold withdraw from the Washington head coach search before Jedd Fisch was hired.
Kansas State’s Chris Klieman, like Leipold, came from winning big in the lower divisions of football. He won four FCS titles at North Dakota State. The 56-year-old led the Wildcats to the Big 12 title in 2022, going 10-4. This past year, the Wildcats were 9-4 and had a second consecutive top-20 finish. Klieman has a good situation at K-State under athletic director Gene Taylor, with whom he worked previously, but the chance to jump to a better-resourced, blue-blood program in the Big Ten might be very tempting.
LSU’s Brian Kelly jumped from South Bend to Baton Rouge to try to better his chances at winning a national title. Kelly had an impressive debut season in Baton Rouge in 2022, going 10-4 and winning the SEC West. This past season, expectations were much higher and the Tigers went 10-3, but it felt disappointing given they had Heisman winner Jayden Daniels at quarterback and a ton of key players back. They were dreadful on defense, got blown out by Florida State in the opener, gave up 55 in a loss to Ole Miss and had only one win over a ranked opponent, Missouri.
Kelly, 62, is a really good coach, but the bar in Baton Rouge is incredibly high. The last three coaches there all won national titles. Making it to a 12-team College Football Playoff but not winning a title won’t cut it. The fit with him in Louisiana has seemed odd, even bizarre, from the moment he arrived. He now has to overhaul his coaching staff. Top recruits still want to come to LSU, but I’ve heard lots of chatter that if he could get in on Michigan, he’d probably go for it. Kelly spent almost two decades in the state of Michigan while coaching at Grand Valley State. How attractive would he be relative to Michigan’s other options? I’m a little skeptical at this point.
Harbaugh may not have been for everybody, but all the people inside Michigan — especially his players — love him for his authenticity. With Kelly, it seems like you might be talking about the polar opposite.
(Top photo of Sherrone Moore: Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)