College Football
Now that Jim Harbaugh has reached the peak at Michigan, what comes next?
College Football

Now that Jim Harbaugh has reached the peak at Michigan, what comes next?

Updated Jan. 9, 2024 1:57 p.m. ET

HOUSTON — Who has it better than Jim Harbaugh?


It is a declarative statement, a rhetorical question and a phrase as ubiquitously attributable to the Michigan head coach all the same — a rare catchphrase for someone in his position that is particularly notable for its simple clarity.

In the wake of Michigan's cathartic 34-13 victory against No. 2 Washington on Monday night, winning a national championship to emphatically return glory to his alma mater in the process, it rings equivocally true, too. 


Nobody has it better than Harbaugh right now. Nobody.

A chosen son delivering on an unspoken promise to secure the Wolverines their first national title since 1997 — and first undisputed title since 1948 — is straight out of a Hollywood script, the type of black-and-white classic the program's old-school leader would relish watching if he were not laser-focused on whatever opponent happened to be on the docket. 

Whatever opinion you might have of the mercurial head coach in Ann Arbor, there is little questioning his credentials between the lines.

Harbaugh has embodied the Captain Comeback moniker he earned as a player wearing a winged helmet just as he has while donning the headset. Harbaugh elevated non-scholarship San Diego into a West Coast FCS power, going a remarkable 22-2 in his final two years on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. He turned Stanford from also-ran into the home of intellectual brutality, setting a new standard of success at a school that had rarely seen much.

He tried his hand at the NFL up the road in San Francisco, too, reversing the fortunes of a once-proud franchise to nearly capture another Lombardi Trophy. Though the sport's ultimate professional prize eluded him, at least it stayed in the family. 

Where do Jim Harbaugh, Michigan and Washington go from here?

"Last one standing, it's a great feeling," said Harbaugh, taking his time to savor every last hug amid falling confetti with anybody wearing a Block M before descending into the recesses of NRG Stadium to speak publicly for the final time this season. "For me personally, I can now sit at the big person's table in the family. They won't keep me on the little table anymore. My dad, Jack Harbaugh, won a national championship and my brother won a Super Bowl. It's good to be at the big person's table from now on." 

No doubt about that, not after Harbaugh has fully and completely revived Michigan, the winningest college football team of all time.

[Jim Harbaugh not discussing coaching future yet: 'Definitely going to just enjoy this']

This is the mountain top, and it has been reached by the maize and blue through the sheer force of a coach whose personality is unique, undying and unyielding when it comes to winning.

"Jim Harbaugh is a great coach. During COVID, everybody lost their mind — but I didn't. He is an awesome coach, and this is proof of it," Michigan athletic director and former teammate Warde Manuel said. "The way he led these young men, everything came together under his leadership. It proves that finally (the doubters) can shut up."

The list of those who are now piping down has grown exponentially, not just as a result of ending Washington's FBS-leading 21-game winning streak and capping off a perfect season as a result, but because of where the central figure in this era of Michigan history has taken a program he is as connected to as any.

After falling to the depths of a 2-4 mark during that trying 2020 campaign, many called for Harbaugh's head, the coach's inability to slay the overbearing rivals in Columbus adding to a record that was always very good but also very short of the standard of great that the university constantly tries to ascribe to.

J.J. McCarthy, Michigan roll past Washington

Instead of leaving, Harbaugh took a pay cut to remain in charge and later invested some of the fruits of his incentive-laden deal to give back to the program in the wake of pandemic budget cuts. What has flowed since that critical sliding-doors moment has turned into one of the most impressive building jobs in the modern era, with Michigan just the fourth team since the turn of last century to win 40 games in three years. 

"He's a resilient guy, and there was no question that he was going to come back and take a look at everything and impact everything he possibly could," brother-in-law and longtime college basketball coach Tom Crean said. "It's an unbelievable family thing, it's phenomenal."

If there is one thing that is equally inescapable in a Jim Harbaugh-led program it is that connection to kin via blood, recruiting or paycheck. Among the many, many hugs handed out by a coach who unleashed his warmest smile for the postgame scene, the sweetest was undoubtedly the one he gave patriarch Jack after the latter ran up and jumped into his son's arms. 

But nobody could escape the vise grip of the former star quarterback in his trademark sideline khakis. 

Not brother John, who flew into a rain-lashed Houston in the wake of guiding his Baltimore Ravens to the top seed in the AFC this season and was late enough that he had to surprise his sibling with a nudge in the first quarter to get the first of many embraces.

Not matriarch Jackie, who once cautioned her son that sometimes going home might not quite be what you wanted.

Not the countless coaches and players who shuffled along the turf either. 

Michigan and Georgia lead RJ's way-too-early Top 25 for 2024

"He treats me no different than he treats his brother," said defensive coordinator Jesse Minter, whose unit limited the Huskies to just 301 yards and 2-for-14 on third down while making adjustments during a suffocating second-half effort, doing so alongside his own father, current linebackers coach Rick Minter. "He's a leader. He's an older brother. He's a father figure to a lot of the players. It's truly just remarkable the relationships he's able to build and the confidence he breeds in everybody. It's truly, when he says family, it's real. It's true."

The question now, though, is how much longer will that continue to be the case for the Wolverines, and a character whose thinking is unknown to pretty much everyone.

When Harbaugh was introduced, nine years and six days before he lifted the national championship trophy into the air, he called himself a "construction guy" who hopefully would be able to build a great home that turned into a cathedral. He had done so with USD and Stanford, and even the 49ers.

Ideally, Michigan would be his last, the one he would live in permanently. 

In a vacuum, maybe it will be. But Harbaugh does not operate in a vacuum, and a flock of NFL franchises will be calling (if they haven't already picked up the phone with recently hired agent Don Yee), hoping he can engineer a similar turnaround at the highest level.

"The name Harbaugh is iconic in football. From his dad, from his brother, from himself, (Jim) has one of the winningest records in both collegiate and NFL coaching. Everywhere he goes, he wins," school president Santa Ono said. "I view him as a partner. I view him as a critical person at the institution. I very much hope he stays."

Harbaugh has had an extension waiting to be signed for several months now. Ono has been unwavering in his support and has helped rally funds from many of the deep-pocketed boosters that roamed the Houston Texans' stadium Monday night. Manuel joked last week he would try to get his coach to sign it on the flight home from the Rose Bowl, the emotions of topping the great Nick Saban and mighty Alabama to end a CFP losing streak still fresh in everyone's mind.

Yet the document, and the resulting significance that would come from pen meeting paper by the school's alumni of the month, will still be sitting there for what is going to seem like an interminable amount of time as Harbaugh sorts out his future over the coming days. 

"If this was his last game, I think he put so much into Michigan. I think he did an amazing job with this program, especially when nobody thought he could," defensive lineman Kris Jenkins said after helping harass Heisman runner-up Michael Penix Jr. into a 53% passing effort with two interceptions marring his lone touchdown pass. "Whatever's next for Coach Harbaugh, wherever he's still coaching at, he's still the same man he always is."

"He could do whatever he wants to do, he deserves it. Whatever choice he makes, the University of Michigan would be happy," added running back Donovan Edwards, later proclaiming Harbaugh the greatest coach in school history, just ahead of Fielding Yost and Bo Schembechler. "If he stays, awesome. If he goes, awesome, he deserves it."

Weighing on Harbaugh, Michigan will almost certainly be entering a significant rebuild going into the 2024 campaign regardless of what star quarterback J.J. McCarthy — 27-1 as a starter — does with his own NFL decision. The bulk of this year's title winners were internally developed and will be either graduating or declaring early.

Throw in a schedule that features a resurgent Texas fresh off its own CFP appearance, plus conference games against USC, Washington, Oregon, Michigan State, and, of course, Ohio State, and it will be no easy sledding in terms of rebuilding on the fly in 2024.

Then there's the additional matter of the NCAA, which is unmistakably gunning for the school. An infractions case from over the summer still lingers, and few know what will eventually happen to the head coach who had former analyst Connor Stalions turn into a household name after it surfaced he was illegally stealing opponents' signals and organizing an elaborate in-person scouting effort — but it won't be a light slap on the wrist given some of the vitriol that emanated from the Midwest and beyond.

Harbaugh, for his part, proclaimed his program's innocence and doubled down on exonerating his players, too. It's been "Michigan versus Everybody" since the scandal surfaced in mid-October and that motto has fueled a rallying cry that drove the team all the way to the promised land.

But there's no more everybody anymore. Hail to those ultimate victors, capping off 2023 unlike any other that came before it.

Now it's just Harbaugh, their fearless leader with a decision about whether his final chapter at the school is the one he authored with a national title — or not.

"You could probably write a book, what it means to be a Michigan man," said Harbaugh as he reminisced about growing up in Ann Arbor and waxing poetic about his time as a player at the Big House. "But someday, when they throw dirt over the top of me, if somebody who is eulogizing me, who was on this team or one of my teammates when I was playing at Michigan, if they would simply say, ‘He was a Michigan man,’ that would mean everything."

There is no need to wait that long. Nobody has it better than he does. 

Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.

More on the College Football Playoff National Championship


Get more from College Football Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more