Jim Harbaugh can either die a hero, or live long enough to see himself become the villain.
When the Michigan coach steps on to the NRG Stadium turf in the national championship game Monday night in Houston, he will either lead the Wolverines to its first outright national championship since 1948 or fail in that quest.
If he does fail, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him tuck tail and run back to coaching in the NFL, especially if their season ends with a loss to Washington or in a vacated controversy in a few months stemming from their Connor Stalions cheating scandal.
Houston Nutt, the last Arkansas football coach to beat Nick Saban, chimed in on the last last coach to do it, period, on a recent episode of Coaches & The Mouth Podcast.
Jim Harbaugh Back to the NFL?
“I won’t be surprised if Jim Harbaugh goes back to the NFL with all the things that have happened,” he said. It’s not the scandal at play here. Indeed, the 66-year-old believes “more and more college coaches will start looking over the fence and start looking at the NFL.”
The reasoning is simple enough. College football coaches make more money than ever, but at the cost of way more headaches than in years past. The prevalence of the transfer portal and NIL means they must deal with a grind that is truly 24-7-365. It used to be that college coaches would coach their season, have a nice break, handle signing day recruiting, have another break, do spring drills, enjoy another break and then get ready for fall camp.
Those days are history.
“This is a very tough profession now for the family because you’re recruiting, and I mean it’s constant,” Nutt said. “I’ve had a couple of coaches tell me that they literally would get a phone call while they were on vacation to say, ‘Hey, hate to interrupt your vacation, but you gotta get back to campus. So-and-so just came in on an unofficial visit. He plays your position, Coach. We need you here.’ I mean, that’s what makes it extremely, extremely difficult.”
Not only are you having to recruit the nation’s top high school talent, you’re also having to constantly survey the landscape of the other FBS schools and try and find players who may want to leave for better opportunities or because their coach is getting fired, etc.
Arkansas football fans well recall Lincoln Riley doing this in the 2021 offseason when Mike Woods transferred to Oklahoma, Riley’s former team. Then, in 2022, he did the same to Pittsburgh football coach Pat Narduzzi with another wide receiver. This time around, it was Biletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison.
Jordan Addison NIL Drama
Nutt had a front-row view into that drama during a Chick-Fil-A golf tournament fundraiser in which he shared a golf cart with UConn coach Randy Edsall. They drove beside another cart with Rick Neuheisal and Pat Narduzzi.
“We get up to the first hole at 9:00 AM on May 1st,” Nutt recalled, when he saw Narduzzi get off the phone with a crestfallen look. “Well, I’ve seen that face before,” Nutt thought. “He either got a bad call – the player either got in trouble, or I could read it on his face and he didn’t play the first hole, didn’t play the second. Finally I said, “Pat, everything okay?” “Nope. My receiver, who was a Biletnikoff Award winner, he’s at USC now visiting and if I can’t match a million dollars, I’m out.”
Later, Nutt added: “He’s on that phone trying to gather up some collectives, some alums, thinking [can] we match this. We gotta get him back. But he goes and plays with Caleb Williams at USC.”
Later, conflicting reports emerged around what exactly happened. Some pegged Addison’s deal for his last college season at $3.5 million, which is just about what he’s currently paid annually by the Minnesota Vikings. Fox Sports’ Colin Cowherd, meanwhile, insists there was “no NIL deal” and USC paid him nothing.
Regardless, NIL bidding wars have only become more commonplace in the last couple of years. Players are maximizing what they can gain and have no problems selecting the school that is going to pay them the most. That happens even if it appears to be against their best interests when there’s an established player already at their position, or involves them spurning their home state school.
One former Razorback who also had a connection to Pitt and USC is Ricky Town, the meandering quarterback that could never decide where he was most comfortable.
Town was hitting the portal before it was cool, so to speak. Except back then, the rule was that you had to sit out a year, and you couldn’t just transfer wherever you wanted.
There was also no NIL money to be earned legitimately. Of course, anyone who has an IQ above room temperature knows that players were getting paid by boosters and other money folks of schools before NIL was a thing.
It’s become essentially free agency in college football.
Which leads us back to Jim Harbaugh.
If he’s going to deal with free agency, he may as well go back to the NFL and try and win that elusive Super Bowl that he couldn’t win as a player or a coach.
His brother may win it again this year. And against the 49ers franchise Harbaugh used to coach.
Maybe such a Super Bowl happens again, Harbaugh will get the competitive itch and get away from the Big Ten, which is only getting more difficult with the addition of USC, UCLA, Oregon and Washington.
It just remains to be seen what NFL team will entice him.
More from Houston Nutt on Jim Harbaugh
Houston Nutt coached Murray State from 1993 to 1996, which overlapped some of the time Jim Harbaugh quarterbacked the Indianapolis Colts. “I coached against Jim Harbaugh’s father [Jack] when he was at Western Kentucky,” Nutt said. “In the summertime, Jim would come down there. When he was with the Indianapolis Colts or wherever he was playing.”
“I always thought, watching his teams early on, that he was a lot like his father. Pretty fundamentally sound. He’s tough, physical, hard-nosed. That’s what his father, Jack, was. I have an awesome respect for the Harbaugh family. Just a family of coaches and that’s all they know, is ball. They compete.”
More from Houston Nutt on Michigan football and Harbaugh here: