By Daniel Popper, Austin Meek and Jeff Howe
Los Angeles Chargers owner Dean Spanos vowed in December he would be “reimagining” how his organization approaches “building and maintaining a championship-caliber program.” Consider that process reimagined.
The Chargers are hiring Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh as their coach, the team announced Wednesday. The 60-year-old agreed to a five-year deal, according to a league source.
For the first time since Norv Turner in 2007, the Chargers have hired a coach with previous NFL head-coaching experience. They went shopping at the top of the market, in one of the most decorated and qualified groups of coaching candidates in recent league history. And they succeeded.
Harbaugh spent the past nine seasons at Michigan, a run that culminated with a national championship earlier this month. Prior to that, Harbaugh coached the San Francisco 49ers for four seasons from 2011-14. He compiled a 44-19-1 record while leading San Francisco to three straight NFC championship games, including a Super Bowl berth in 2012.
“My love for Michigan, playing there and coming back to coach there, leaves a lasting impact. I’ll always be a loyal Wolverine,” Harbaugh said in a statement. “I’m remarkably fortunate to have been afforded the privilege of coaching at places where life’s journey has created strong personal connections for me. From working as an assistant coach at Western Kentucky alongside my father, Jack, and time as an assistant with the Raiders, to being a head coach at USD, Stanford, the 49ers and Michigan — each of those opportunities carried significance, each felt personal. When I played for the Chargers, the Spanos family could not have been more gracious or more welcoming. Being back here feels like home, and it’s great to see that those things haven’t changed.”
The Chargers conducted their first interview with Harbaugh on Jan. 15. He was interviewed a second time Tuesday, a league source said.
ladies and gentlemen, we got him.
we’ve agreed to terms with Jim Harbaugh to be our head coach » pic.twitter.com/PTauQDWDVb
— Los Angeles Chargers (@chargers) January 25, 2024
Harbaugh is a proven winner at both the college and NFL levels. He brings a cachet that will earn him immediate respect from players as soon as he steps into the building. He will demand a lot of the organization, but with this hire, the Chargers are saying rather publicly that they are ready for that accountability, for those expectations.
The Chargers are entering their eighth season in L.A. They have a franchise quarterback in Justin Herbert. The time to etch their place in this market is right now. That, more than anything, is what this hire signifies.
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Settling for mediocrity and occasional contention is no longer an option. Perennial Super Bowl contention is the goal. Winning is the last box the Chargers have to check to truly earn relevance in Los Angeles. The Spanos family invested in a premium candidate. They believe Harbaugh can lead them there.
“You don’t build a resume like Jim’s by accident, and you don’t do it by yourself,” said President of Football Operations John Spanos. “You need a team. And nobody has built a team more successfully, and repeatedly, in recent history than Jim Harbaugh. His former players swear by him, and his opponents swear at him. Jim is one of one, and we couldn’t be more excited to have him back in the Chargers organization as our head coach.”
Michigan went 15-0 under Harbaugh in 2023, beating Ohio State for the third straight year and winning the Big Ten title. The Wolverines beat Alabama in the Rose Bowl before toppling Washington 34-13 in the national championship.
In nine years, Harbaugh led Michigan to an 89-25 record and eight bowl game appearances.
At Michigan’s championship parade, athletic director Warde Manuel led a standing ovation for Harbaugh and told the crowd in Ann Arbor, “I am working on getting this man a new contract. I promise you.”
Michigan’s choose-your-own-adventure season always had a championship ending
Harbaugh’s contract with the Wolverines runs through 2026. He’s received plenty of interest from the NFL over the years and talked with the Minnesota Vikings and the Denver Broncos in the past two hiring cycles. Harbaugh also interviewed for the Falcons coaching job on Jan. 16.
The Chargers fired former coach Brandon Staley and former GM Tom Telesco on Dec. 15, hours after an embarrassing loss to the Las Vegas Raiders on national television. Telesco spent 11 seasons with the organization. Staley lasted three seasons.
Harbaugh’s hiring ends a lengthy and far-reaching coaching search for the Chargers.
Spanos said in December that the team would “cast a wide net,” and the Chargers followed up on that. The organization interviewed 15 candidates from various backgrounds — former NFL coaches, former college coaches and current NFL coordinators.
They settled on Harbaugh, a coach who does have a history with the franchise — as a player. Harbaugh signed with San Diego in 1999 to back up Ryan Leaf and ended up starting 17 games between 1999 and 2000. The Chargers were the last team he played a game for; he signed contracts with the Detroit Lions and Carolina Panthers in 2001, but never appeared in any games for either team.
The next step: hiring a general manager. Some names to watch include New York Giants assistant GM Brandon Brown, Ravens director of player personnel Joe Hortiz and Chicago Bears co-director of player personnel Jeff King.
Jim Harbaugh in nine seasons as Michigan’s head coach:
◽️ 89-25 record
◽️ Six seasons with 10+ wins
◽️ 2021 AP CFB Coach of the Year
◽️ Three Big Ten titles
◽️ 2023 National Championship
More on his move ⤵️ pic.twitter.com/IYdWgj9OR9
— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) January 25, 2024
What Harbaugh’s departure means for Michigan
Michigan has had plenty of time to contemplate life without Harbaugh. His name has been featured prominently in the NFL coaching carousel for the past three years, and now his long-anticipated departure is a reality. For any coach, duplicating Michigan’s success over the past three seasons will be difficult, if not impossible, but Harbaugh is leaving the program with a natural successor in offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore and positive momentum from this year’s run to the national championship.
Meek: Jim Harbaugh at Michigan could have ended badly. Instead, he delivered a parade.
Harbaugh is also leaving Michigan with NCAA baggage. Though the extent of the penalties has yet to be determined, the program is likely to face additional sanctions in 2024 tied to two NCAA investigations that happened on Harbaugh’s watch. That won’t make the job any easier for Harbaugh’s successor.
Promoting Moore, who went 4-0 as Michigan’s head coach during Harbaugh’s suspensions, would allow Michigan to maintain a degree of continuity and keep some of the program’s infrastructure in place. Replacing the head coach and so many key contributors from the 2023 team will be a massive challenge for Michigan, but that national championship trophy will look good in Schembechler Hall. — Austin Meek, Michigan staff writer
(Photo: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)