College Football
What does life after Jim Harbaugh look like for Michigan, and what comes next?
College Football

What does life after Jim Harbaugh look like for Michigan, and what comes next?

Updated Jan. 25, 2024 11:38 a.m. ET

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — On the frigid Saturday evening when Michigan football staged a celebration for its first national championship in 26 years, quarterback J.J. McCarthy and head coach Jim Harbaugh both addressed the expectant crowd that stuffed Crisler Center, the school's on-campus basketball arena, to the brim. 

McCarthy, who had recently capped his junior season by cementing his place in program lore, could have ignited a roar by telling the Wolverine faithful he'd be returning for another year. And Harbaugh, who had succeeded in restoring his alma mater to the pinnacle of college football, could have committed himself to Michigan for 2024 and beyond by eschewing the NFL rumors once and for all. The rafters would have quaked.

That neither one seized what felt like an obvious moment all but foretold the days and weeks to come. First, McCarthy declared for the NFL Draft the following afternoon. Then Harbaugh decided to interview with the Atlanta Falcons and Los Angeles Chargers, marking a third consecutive offseason in which he's entertained interest from the pros. Fans braced themselves for the increasing likelihood of wholesale changes.

The biggest domino finally toppled on Wednesday evening when Harbaugh reached a deal with the Chargers, catapulting himself back to the NFL for the first time since he and the San Francisco 49ers parted ways in 2014. That version of Harbaugh still ranks fifth in league history with a .695 winning percentage across four seasons and 64 games. He reached three consecutive NFC Championship Games from 2011-13 and lost Super Bowl XLVII to the Baltimore Ravens, a team coached by his brother John Harbaugh. When paired with the three-year revival Harbaugh oversaw in Ann Arbor, where the Wolverines won three consecutive Big Ten Championships, reached the College Football Playoff three consecutive times and upended Washington to win the national title earlier this month, it was easy to see why multiple NFL franchises inquired about his services.


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So much of Harbaugh's success at Michigan can be traced to the formative months following a desultory 2020 season that ended with a clunking 2-4 record. He overhauled his coaching staff, overhauled the culture and overhauled the team's philosophy on both sides of the ball. Together, his changes lent stability and toughness to a place that stagnated following the 2007 retirement of coach Lloyd Carr, the last man to win a national title in Ann Arbor. Few programs in college football, if any, can say they identified and developed talent as adroitly as Michigan did the last few years.

All of which explains why Harbaugh's departure invites so many questions about the future of Michigan football, from who will replace arguably the greatest coach in school history to which assistants will join their boss in the NFL and how many players will enter the transfer portal. 

Most of those questions and countless others probe the same theme: Can the Wolverines maintain their perch among the sport's elite if droves of key personnel are gone?

Sherrone Moore's candidacy

As Harbaugh interviewed with the Falcons and Chargers, the latest spins of this year's coaching carousel in college football should have fired a warning shot across the bow of athletic director Warde Manuel and university president Santa Ono, the two central figures tasked with finding Harbaugh's replacement. 

The unexpected retirement of Alabama head coach Nick Saban triggered waves of coaching movement that stretched from Washington and Arizona to San Jose State, Buffalo, UCLA, South Carolina and South Alabama, among others. And every time a head coach shuffled from one locale to another — inevitably dragging key assistant coaches and recruiting staffers with him — the players left behind were given 30 days to enter the transfer portal. Which is why Alabama bid farewell to a flock of former blue-chip recruits, including the No. 1 quarterback in the country for the 2024 recruiting cycle, Julian Sayin, who had enrolled in Tuscaloosa earlier this month. It's why Washington lost 18 players in 11 days. It's why Arizona lost eight players in seven days.

Watching the rosters and coaching staffs from two of this year's College Football Playoff participants disintegrate in real time surely resonated with decision-makers at Michigan, who must decide if offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore is the right successor. Moore, 37, guided the Wolverines to four of their 15 wins this season as acting head coach during portions of Harbaugh's two suspensions. He proved to be an excellent play-caller in a near-flawless performance against Ohio State and flashed additional moments of brilliance in the Rose Bowl against Alabama. His work with the offensive line netted Michigan the Joe Moore Award in back-to-back seasons in 2021 and 2022. He's also regarded as a strong recruiter. 

Hiring Moore would provide a natural bridge from Harbaugh to the next iteration of Michigan football, which in turn might produce the best odds for keeping the Wolverines' roster intact. But Moore has never been a head coach at any level — save for his four games as Harbaugh's fill-in — and that might be too much of a résumé gap for a program with enough resources to pursue the best of the best.

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Additional staff departures

Even if Moore is given the job in Ann Arbor, where he would become the first African-American coach in program history, it's all but certain that the staff will endure significant turnover as Harbaugh builds a supporting cast in Los Angeles. 

Several Michigan assistants were prepared to follow Harbaugh to the NFL in 2022 after he interviewed with the Minnesota Vikings on National Signing Day, headlined by former quarterbacks coach Matt Weiss, who joined the Wolverines after 12 years with the Ravens and was later promoted to co-offensive coordinator. This time, the group of coaches Harbaugh may bring with him could include defensive coordinator Jesse Minter, whose unit led the country in yards per game (247) and points per game (10.4); special teams coordinator Jay Harbaugh, whose groups finished among the top three nationally in FEI special teams ratings for two of the last three seasons; and tight ends coach Grant Newsome, whom Harbaugh has labeled a rising star in the profession.

As critical as those coaches have been to Michigan's success, it's director of strength and conditioning Ben Herbert whose shoes would be most difficult to fill. No member of the coaching staff spends more time around the players than Herbert, the epicenter of roster development in Ann Arbor. It's Herbert who fueled the physical transformations that allowed Michigan to surpass Ohio State for Big Ten supremacy despite finishing with significantly lower-rated recruiting classes the last three years. And it's Herbert whom players credited with instilling the mental toughness that, in the past, guided them through periods of uncertainty surrounding Harbaugh's future and then bolstered them amid a litany of off-field issues.

Harbaugh believed Herbert was so vital to the program's success that he rewarded him with a five-year contract extension worth $1 million per season prior to the 2023 campaign. He also gave Herbert the title of associate head coach.

It's difficult to imagine Harbaugh moving to the NFL without the man he's dubbed the "X-factor" of Michigan football.

Restocking the roster

While the aforementioned schools like Alabama and Washington watched their rosters erode via the transfer portal, the Wolverines were busy losing scores of key contributors to the NFL Draft. 

McCarthy is gone. Running back Blake Corum is gone. Wide receivers Roman Wilson and Cornelius Johnson are gone. Tight end AJ Barner is gone. All five offensive linemen who started in the national championship game are gone, as is injured right guard Zak Zinter. Defensive tackles Kris Jenkins and Cam Goode are gone. Edge rushers Jaylen Harrell and Braiden McGregor are gone. Linebackers Michael Barrett and Junior Colson are gone. Defensive backs Mike Sainristil and Josh Wallace are gone. Kicker James Turner is gone, too.

Before the season began, Harbaugh predicted his team would break the record for most players drafted in a single year, with the current mark of 15 belonging to Georgia. Harbaugh thought as many as 20 former Wolverines could hear their names called in the 2024 NFL Draft, and there's a good chance he won't be far off. Georgia's record is well within Michigan's reach. 

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Efforts to replace such a glut of talent have been underwhelming at best and nonexistent at worst — a byproduct, perhaps, of Harbaugh seeming to have one foot and both eyes out the door as his NFL chances improved. By this time last winter, seven of Michigan's eventual nine additions through the transfer portal were already committed and enrolled in classes following an aggressive approach from Harbaugh and his staff. This year, however, the Wolverines have only added two transfers to an extremely porous depth chart: former Northwestern offensive lineman Josh Priebe and former Maryland linebacker Jaishawn Barham. They haven't exactly plugged the dam. 

The most glaring vacancy is at quarterback, where the Wolverines must replace arguably the most accomplished signal-caller in school history without an obvious successor on the roster. Prolonged deliberation from McCarthy about his NFL future likely hindered Michigan's efforts to secure a potential heir through the transfer portal, and 24 of the top 25 quarterbacks in the 247Sports Transfer Portal Rankings are already attached to other schools. Former Washington quarterback Dermaricus Davis (No. 25) is the only exception.

In-house candidates to replace McCarthy range from former Indiana transfer Jack Tuttle, who is seeking an NCAA waiver for a seventh year of eligibility, to dual-threat quarterback Alex Orji. Four-star freshman Jadyn Davis (No. 93 overall, No. 7 QB) enrolled early to begin practicing with Michigan during the buildup to this year's College Football Playoff. 

But none of those players are ready or able to man the position like McCarthy did. The Wolverines will likely be shoppers when the transfer portal re-opens in the spring.

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.


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