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    Sources close to Jim Harbaugh believe it’s a ‘done deal’ if he gets NFL offer

    By Bruce Feldman, Nicole Auerbach, Austin Meek and Nick Kosmider

    Multiple sources close to Jim Harbaugh told The Athletic on Monday they expect he will leave Michigan for the NFL if a franchise offers him a coaching job. Here’s what you need to know:

    • Harbaugh has compiled a 74-25 record over eight seasons at Michigan. He led the Wolverines to back-to-back Big Ten titles and College Football Playoff appearances.
    • The coach’s buyout is only $3 million this year, and it decreases each year of his new deal. The lump-sum payment would be due within 60 days of resignation. Harbaugh can be fired for cause if he participates in a job search without telling the athletic director, according to his contract.
    • “I think it is a done deal if he gets an offer,” said one source close to Harbaugh.

    The Athletic’s instant analysis:

    Backstory

    Last year, Harbaugh, fresh off leading Michigan to its first Big Ten title in 17 years, pursued a return to the NFL.

    On Signing Day in 2022, Harbaugh met with the Minnesota Vikings but ultimately didn’t get offered the job. He told reporters after that, “There was a pull to the NFL because I got that close to the Super Bowl, but this was the time. And this is the last time. Now let’s go chase college football’s greatest prize.”

    This year, Harbaugh led his alma mater to an even more impressive season, going undefeated in the regular season and dominating archrival Ohio State, again. This time, it happened in Columbus and the Wolverines won going away, 45-23.

    Over the past two seasons, Harbaugh has shown that he has continued to evolve as a head coach and his program has made a dramatic turnaround. UM was a big favorite entering its College Football Playoff semifinal game last weekend against TCU, but got upset, and now with NFL teams once again giving the 58-year-old Harbaugh strong consideration, his next move will be fascinating to watch. A return, perhaps to the Denver Broncos or his old team, the Indianapolis Colts, could be very tempting. — Feldman 

    Harbaugh’s track record 

    Harbaugh is 44-19-1 as an NFL coach.

    He took over the 49ers in 2011 after the organization had gone eight years without a winning season and led them to the NFC title game in his debut season. In his second season, he took them to the Super Bowl where they lost to his brother John’s Baltimore Ravens team. In Year 3, Harbaugh’s 49ers made it back to the NFC title game. His team went 8-8 in his fourth and final season before returning to college to take over Michigan. — Feldman 

    Why the Broncos would make sense 

    After hiring three straight first-time head coaches who failed to produce a winning record in any of their six combined seasons, previous head-coaching experience is almost certainly a prerequisite in the eyes of Denver’s new ownership group. Harbaugh’s success with the 49ers — a 44-19-1 record and a stretch of three straight NFC championship game appearances — would certainly be appealing to a franchise that hasn’t reached the playoffs since 2015.

    There is also the Stanford connection. Broncos CEO Greg Penner and his wife, co-owner Carrie Walton Penner, both attended graduate school at the university. Limited shareholder Condoleezza Rice, who is part of Denver’s search committee, also has deep ties to Stanford, where Harbaugh coached from 2007 to 2010. Rice recently helped Stanford conduct its search for long-time coach David Shaw’s replacement.

    Penner also noted in his media address last month following the firing of Nathaniel Hackett that he was looking for CEO-type qualities in the team’s next head coach, who will report directly to Penner. That would be a box checked by Harbaugh, who has spent the past 19 seasons as a head coach at the college or pro level.

    “I’ve worked with a lot of great CEOs, and it starts with really strong leadership,” Penner said on Dec. 27. “That’s going to be the most critical factor here in a head coach. Obviously, the X’s and O’s are important, but we need a strong leader for this organization that’s focused on winning. That starts with culture. It’s instilling a sense of accountability and discipline. We need an identity on offense. At the starting point, it has to be about culture and leadership. Those characteristics are what we’ll be focused on the most.” — Kosmider 

    Required reading

    (Photo: Kirby Lee / USA Today)

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