National Football League
Chargers win big by hiring Jim Harbaugh. But the next steps won't be easy
National Football League

Chargers win big by hiring Jim Harbaugh. But the next steps won't be easy

Published Jan. 25, 2024 12:00 a.m. ET

Right place, right time.

Everything needed to line up, and it did. Los Angeles Chargers owner Dean Spanos secured one of the top head coaches available in a very active offseason, hiring Jim Harbaugh.

Harbaugh just won a national championship at his alma mater in Michigan. NCAA violations forced Harbaugh to miss several games last season, and more violations have been alleged. Despite that, Michigan reportedly offered Harbaugh a lucrative extension to stay, which he turned down to join the Chargers. 

Harbaugh has ties to the Bolts from his NFL playing days, playing the last two seasons of his 14-year pro career with the team. He also served as head coach at the University of San Diego when the Chargers still resided there.


But the most important enticement for Harbaugh: a franchise quarterback capable of leading them to a Super Bowl in Justin Herbert. 

"Jim Harbaugh is football personified, and I can think of no one better to lead the Chargers forward," Spanos said in a prepared statement. "The son of a coach, brother of a coach and father of a coach who himself was coached by names like Schembechler and Ditka, for the past two decades Jim has led hundreds of men to success everywhere he's been — as their coach. And today, Jim Harbaugh returns to the Chargers, this time as our coach. Who has it better than us?"

It will be up to Harbaugh to change the culture in the building and create an environment of sustainable championship success for a team that has not won the AFC West since 2009, has two playoffs wins in 14 seasons and has cycled through six head coaches since 2012.

It's an arduous task, but Harbaugh appears up to the challenge. He will likely lean on his experience as a head coach for the San Francisco 49ers, where he finished 44-19-1 in four seasons and led them to a Super Bowl appearance after the 2012 season. 

Harbaugh can look to his brother, Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, for an example of a winning culture established for the long haul. We'll get to see another Harbaugh-Harbaugh matchup (Harbowl!) early, as the Chargers face the Ravens next year. 

Jim Harbaugh leaves Michigan, accepts Los Angeles Chargers HC gig

"When I played for the Chargers, the Spanos family could not have been more gracious or more welcoming," Harbaugh said in the team's press release. "Being back here feels like home, and it's great to see that those things haven't changed.

"The only job you start at the top is digging a hole, so we know we've got to earn our way. Be better today than yesterday. Be better tomorrow than today. My priorities are faith, family and football, and we are going to attack each with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind. This organization is putting in the work — investing capital, building infrastructure and doing everything within its power to win. Great effort equals great results, and we're just getting started."

The Chargers are a projected $55 million over the cap, so Harbaugh and whoever the Chargers hire as the general manager will have to work through some salary-cap issues this offseason. According to multiple reports, the Chargers have scheduled a second interview with  Ravens director of player personnel Joe Hortiz. 

Harbaugh and the Chargers will move into a new practice facility later this year, as the franchise continues to try and win over new fans in Los Angeles.

After the midseason firing of Brandon Staley in 2023, Harbaugh is a high-profile leader the organization hopes can establish a winning culture. If he succeeds, that should carry some weight in the ultra-competitive professional sports market of Los Angeles.

It remains to be seen how the family-run Chargers will work together with a strong personality like Harbaugh, who is sure to want control over personnel and coaching staff decisions. 

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Harbaugh also will decide whether offensive coordinator Kellen Moore remains on the staff, along with interim head coach and defensive line guru Giff Smith. And who will Harbaugh bring in to fix L.A.'s broken defense? 

One thing that Harbaugh has done in college and the pros is create balance on offense by running the ball. The Chargers averaged 96.6 rushing yards a contest, No. 25 in the NFL. Harbaugh created a diverse running game with offensive coordinator Greg Roman during his time with the 49ers and could look to do the same with the Chargers, taking pressure off Herbert to carry the offense with his arm. 

More than anything, securing Harbaugh shows the Spanos family is fully committed to building a winner, which should build some goodwill with players who now know they have a head coach who understands how to create a sustainable winning culture. 

Jim Harbaugh leaving Michigan to become the next head coach of the LA Chargers

Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.


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