That meant four shots at the end zone, four shots to likely win it all, four shots for Harbaugh to ascend to the top of the coaching world. It was all there for the taking.
None of those plays found pay dirt. The vaunted Ravens defense stuffed the Niners and moments later, it was Baltimore (and Jim’s brother John) that was hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
“No greater coach in the NFL than Jim Harbaugh,” John would say afterward, and it sounded like he meant it even if he wasn‘t talking about his younger brother.
That’s how close Jim Harbaugh got to winning the Super Bowl as a coach. The desire to eventually get one never left him, even after he returned to the college ranks for the past nine years and led his alma mater, Michigan, to a national championship.
Now he’s back. The Los Angeles Chargers hired Harbaugh on Wednesday, making him the head coach of the final franchise he played for (then in San Diego) at the end of a 14-season quarterbacking career.
Meanwhile, sources tell Yahoo Sports that Sherrone Moore, Michigan’s offensive coordinator, is the significant favorite to take over the Wolverines. The 37-year-old, who also worked with the team’s vaunted offensive line, led Michigan to four wins as interim head coach this season during Harbaugh's 2023 suspensions. That includes a dramatic one over Ohio State, where he was heralded for his play-calling and game management.
Harbaugh, 60, will take over a promising Chargers roster complete with an elite young quarterback, Justin Herbert. Having a QB like that is generally a prerequisite to winning in the NFL, and make no mistake, Harbaugh didn’t return for anything less than to accomplish everything.
He leaves a Michigan program fresh off a 15-0, national championship season, which also saw the program win its third consecutive Big Ten title and third consecutive triumph over archrival Ohio State.
Harbaugh was comfortably set in Ann Arbor, a local hero with family on his staff, his parents living in the house next to him and presumably recruiting momentum behind him.
Two weeks ago, the Wolverines offered a six-year deal worth $11.5 million per year, not including performance bonuses that would have made him either the highest-paid coach in college football or close to it. They then upped the deal again Wednesday in a last-ditch effort to retain Harbaugh.
Simply put, he didn’t need to go.
He wanted to go. He wanted to win that Super Bowl.
Two years ago, Harbaugh flew to Minneapolis fully expecting that a final face-to-face interview with Minnesota Vikings brass would yield a job offer. It didn’t, and a rebuffed Harbaugh promised he would no longer pursue NFL interest. A year ago, however, there were more NFL calls. This time it was Harbaugh backing away from potential interest in Denver.
Part of that was to coach a team with the kind of talented returning roster that made winning the school's first outright title since the 1940s possible (UM won a share of the 1997 national championship).
With the national title in fold, there was little left for Harbaugh in Ann Arbor. He took the job after a clash of wills in San Francisco left him out of a job despite a 44-19-1 record, two NFC title game appearances and that trip to the Super Bowl in just four years.
Michigan was a reeling program then, just 24-36 in Big Ten play over the previous eight seasons. It wasn’t just getting dominated by Ohio State, but Michigan State and others as well. It was a far cry from Harbaugh’s days playing for Bo Schembechler.
By now all family business has been handled. It is why few at Michigan expected Harbaugh to stay if he was given a good opportunity.
He also leaves behind a messy legacy — including multiple ongoing NCAA infractions cases.
One involves Harbaugh allegedly misleading NCAA investigators when questioned about a series of Level II violations within the program (too many coaches at practice, meeting with recruits during a dead period). Then there is the ongoing saga of the Connor Stalions advanced scouting operation that was allegedly designed to aid in the stealing of opponents' signs.
Michigan self-imposed a three-game suspension of Harbaugh for the former to start the season. The Big Ten sat him for three more as a punitive and corrective measure at the end of the season for the latter. The NCAA could still apply additional sanctions.
Little of it will matter now to Harbaugh. While rival fans will always point to the sign-stealing, winning the national title — including victories over five ranked opponents after the scandal broke — alleviated any concerns within the NFL that Harbaugh’s success was ill-gotten. Even NCAA president Charlie Baker declared the Wolverines won “fair and square.”
Moore would be tasked with wading through any potential NCAA sanctions. His first job would be rallying the roster to remain in Ann Arbor rather than bounce into the transfer portal that will open for the next 30 days due to a head-coaching change.
Michigan has plenty of talent returning, although with star players such as quarterback J.J. McCarthy and running back Blake Corum off to the NFL Draft, the Wolverines are not, at least on paper, as strong as last season.
Harbaugh, meanwhile, can focus on football, not investigations, contracts, lawyers, recruiting or the voluminous NCAA manual. There are few better at building a competitive culture.
That’s what the Chargers are looking for, a second-tier franchise in their own city looking to build a fan base and a market share the old-fashioned way … by winning.
That’s the task for Harbaugh and Herbert. It’s one the coach has been waiting to again take on for a long, long time.