Having won a collegiate national title at Michigan this month, Harbaugh now takes over a team fronted by quarterback Justin Herbert but dogged by the organization’s history of coming up short.
“Jim Harbaugh is football personified, and I can think of no one better to lead the Chargers forward,” owner Dean Spanos said in a 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?”
The Chargers have won only two playoff games over the last 15 years and have advanced to the postseason just once since losing in the divisional round in 2018.
The franchise’s lone Super Bowl appearance resulted in a 49-26 loss to San Francisco following the 1994 season.
Harbaugh, 60, makes his return to the NFL after spending the last nine years at Michigan, his alma mater and the place where he first rose to prominence as a quarterback.
“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.”
From 2011 to 2014, Harbaugh led San Francisco to a 44-19-1 record and three consecutive NFC championship games. His 49ers made one Super Bowl — after the 2012 season — losing to a Baltimore team coached by Harbaugh’s brother, John.
Harbaugh has a track record of turning programs around and establishing winners, having done so during college stops at the University of San Diego and Stanford before jumping to the NFL.
“Nobody has built a team more successfully, and repeatedly, in recent history than Jim Harbaugh,” team president John Spanos said. “His former players swear by him, and his opponents swear at him.”
At Michigan, he inherited a 5-7 team and then won 10 games each in his first two seasons. Harbaugh’s Wolverines went 89-25 and made the playoffs each of the last three years.
But he also is known for clashing with his superiors, something that led to his parting with San Francisco and reportedly resulted in strained relations with some people at Michigan.
Possessing a quirky personality and, at times, an over-the-top perspective, Harbaugh’s background is that of a coach beloved by his players but belittled by his critics.
The NFL Network reported in October that the league could enforce whatever penalties the NCAA imposes on Harbaugh if he does take a job with one of its teams.
The Chargers are expecting Harbaugh to turn their fortunes, coming off a 5-12 finish that cost coach Brandon Staley his job. With Herbert signed to a long-term extension, one big piece already is in place.
But this is a top-heavy roster that sits more than $40 million over the projected salary cap — according to Overthecap.com — meaning some significant changes could be coming.
“The only job you start at the top is digging a hole, so we know we've got to earn our way,” Harbaugh said in his statement. “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.”
Going with Harbaugh marked a departure from the Chargers’ most recent strategy. Their previous three coaches — Staley, Anthony Lynn and Mike McCoy — had no full-time head coaching experience.
Staley was fired Dec. 15 after his teams finished 24-24 in nearly three seasons. He and general manager Tom Telesco were dismissed the morning after a 63-21 loss at Las Vegas. Telesco was hired Tuesday for the same role with Las Vegas.
Longtime Chargers assistant Giff Smith served as the interim coach over the final three games, losing each.
Harbaugh finished his playing career with the Chargers, appearing in a combined 21 games in the 1999 and 2000 seasons.
Harbaugh’s best year came in 1995, when he made the Pro Bowl and finished fourth — behind Brett Favre, Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith — in most-valuable-player voting.
That season the Colts won a pair of playoff games to reach the AFC championship, where they lost 20-16 to Pittsburgh.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.