He will defy convention and his new bosses. He will create an admirable, physical football team and unlock traits we have yet to see in Herbert, who already is a $262.5 million quarterback. Harbaugh will annoy opponents and inflame AFC West rivalries. He will do whatever he deems necessary, except for maybe holding a Connor Stalions Appreciation Day.
In announcing the hire, Chargers owner Dean Spanos borrowed the Harbaugh family slogan and ended his statement with the now-famous question: “Who has it better than us?”
Spanos can lead his choir in a “Nooooooobody!” response for now. He ought to savor the moment. Except for fleeting moments after playoff triumphs, he won’t be this giddy again.
The cost of Harbaugh’s brand of success is tension. Controversy might be on the invoice, too. In the NFL, there may not be as much trouble as Harbaugh found at Michigan, where alleged impermissible recruiting and other NCAA violations during the pandemic led the Wolverines to self-impose a three-game suspension at the start of last season. Then news broke that Stalions, as a Michigan staffer, orchestrated an impermissible sign-stealing and in-person scouting operation. To punish the program, the Big Ten suspended Harbaugh for three more games. Still, he exited with a 15-0 season and left a national championship as a goodbye present.
At Michigan, Harbaugh proved two things. Despite numerous NFL flirtations, he stayed at his alma mater for nine seasons, proving that he’s more than a four years-or-less fixer. And he completed the task from rebuild to confetti, adding championship immortality to all his accomplishments.
Now he seems driven by one aspiration: to join Jimmy Johnson, Barry Switzer and Pete Carroll on the list of coaches who have won a national title and a Super Bowl. Harbaugh is already one of five coaches to win it all in college and lead a team to the Super Bowl. Bobby Ross, the fifth coach in that collection, led Georgia Tech to a share of the 1990 national title. Four years later, he took Harbaugh’s new franchise — then the San Diego Chargers — to Super Bowl XXIX but lost to the San Francisco 49ers, 49-26.
It’s funny how history untangles. Eleven years ago, Harbaugh led the 49ers to Super Bowl XLVII. But that night belonged to his brother, John, who coached the Baltimore Ravens to a 34-31 victory in their family reunion. Now Jim has a college title, and John is vying for a second Lombardi Trophy. By Sunday night, the Ravens and 49ers might be set to tussle again in the Super Bowl.
Perhaps there’s an alternate universe in which both Harbaugh brothers stayed in place. But this is a better story. John has had the same job for 16 years and guided the Ravens through about four transformations. Another title might carry him to the Hall of Fame. On the other hand, Jim is a drifter who has left a mark on three college programs (San Diego, Stanford and Michigan) and brought the 49ers through their longest dry spell since Bill Walsh made them a model organization.
Why did the Chargers need Harbaugh? Why does he seem such a sure thing? Remember what the 49ers had become when he arrived. They had missed the playoffs for eight straight seasons and failed to post a record better than 8-8. Harbaugh inherited a 6-10 team. In 2011, they finished 13-3 and immediately opened a window of prime contention.
That team was younger and better positioned to ascend than these Chargers, who have too many high-priced stars who have celebrated their 30th birthdays and a few injury-prone stars at premium positions such as defensive end Joey Bosa. They have salary cap dilemmas to solve. They must transform a finesse offense into one with the coach’s trademark power running game. They need to get tougher and develop a defense that can anchor them. They have to stop relying on Herbert to make heroic throws and build an offense the quarterback can direct rather than rescue.
Harbaugh was the preferred candidate because he has consistently delivered as a problem solver. He may not change this team’s fortunes as quickly as he has in the past, but the Chargers will change. His high standard will force Spanos out of complacency. Ultimately, success will occur, and it will be uncomfortable and goofy. And it will never be enough for Harbaugh, because he’s the insatiable kind of winner. He always needs more.
He could articulate the joy of being a Michigan Man, but it wasn’t enough. He did the job. He restored dominance, and he did it in the face of NCAA scrutiny. He needed a new challenge, not to mention new enemies.
Harbaugh enters with another cute story: a former Chargers quarterback returning to fix an underperforming team. But he doesn’t do cute. Soon he will throw on a pair of khakis or add about seven layers of clothes like he once did in Green Bay.
He will pester. He will listen to his voice above all. He will fight with or against anyone.
For the Chargers, the benefits of Harbaugh depend on their tolerance level. They won’t be boring anymore, and they had better not be complacent.