Top College Coach Emerges as Candidate for Vikings Job

Mike Zimmer, Vikings

Getty Head coach Mike Zimmer of the Minnesota Vikings reacts to a penalty call during the second quarter against the Detroit Lions at U.S. Bank Stadium on October 10, 2021 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

That the Minnesota Vikings will need a new head coach come next season is becoming more apparent by the day, but who that person will be remains firmly in question.

Most recently, a new name from the collegiate ranks has emerged as a potential candidate to replace lame duck lead man Mike Zimmer, who is reportedly all but out in Minnesota after the Vikings failed to make the playoffs this season. Jim Harbaugh, currently coaching up college athletes a couple states over at the University of Michigan, is rumored to be interested in a return to the NFL. Should Harbaugh become available, the Vikings would be among a handful of teams in a position to make a play for the coach who fell a field goal short of winning a Super Bowl with the San Francisco 49ers just a handful of years ago.

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Bruce Feldman, of The Athletic, reported yesterday that Harbaugh is seriously considering a jump back to pro football for the right opportunity.

“The Athletic is hearing rumblings, both from the NFL side and at Michigan, that Harbaugh might be tempted to leave the Wolverines to return to the NFL,” Feldman wrote in his report published Tuesday, January 4.

He added that one source with whom he spoke said of the rumor that Harbaugh has serious interest in the NFL, “I think it’s real.”

Harbaugh Now One of Hottest Names in Football After Rough Run

Jim Harbaugh

GettyHead coach Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines dismantled the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Big Ten Championship Game on December 4, 2021, on their way to winning a Big 10 title.

Career prospects have shifted quickly for Harbaugh after a big-time campaign at Michigan.

The head coach and former NFL quarterback accepted the job at his alma mater in late December 2014. However, up until this season, Harbaugh had led the Wolverines to less than spectacular results over his seven-year stint there. Just last year, he had to take a pay cut to just hang onto his position.

But now, after a resurgent 2021, Harbaugh’s is one of the hottest names in the sport.

Michigan lost just one regular season game this year, beat the rival Ohio State Buckeyes for the first time in Harbaugh’s tenure, routed the University of Iowa in the Conference Championship Game on the way to the team’s first Big 10 Title in nearly two decades and earned a berth into the College Football Playoff. After it was all said and done, Harbaugh was named AP Coach of the Year.

He also had a strong measure of success during a short run as an NFL head coach between 2011-14, before departing the Bay Area for the job in Ann Arbor. While with San Francisco, Harbaugh led the 49ers to Super Bowl XLVII against his brother and fellow head coach John Harbaugh, of the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens eked out a 34-31 win over the 49ers in that game, which took place in February 2013.

Harbaugh Connected to Several NFL Jobs Likely to Come Open

Getty ImagesUniversity of Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh may be in line to return to the NFL.

Harbaugh’s history in the NFL as a player, assistant and head coach have also primed him to compete for any job he wants. His situation is made even more favorable by the fact that he has an interesting web of connections to teams who are, or are likely soon to become, in the market for a new head coach.

Harbaugh played 15 years in the NFL as a quarterback, including seven with the Chicago Bears, the franchise that drafted him out of Michigan in 1987. The Bears are almost certain to be hiring this offseason, as all signs point to the team dismissing Matt Nagy at year’s end.

Also potentially on the hunt for a head coach will be the Las Vegas Raiders, who parted ways with Jon Gruden after damning emails surfaced that showed Gruden making racist, homophobic and misogynistic comments.

Harbaugh served as the quarterbacks coach for the Raiders in 2002-03, back when they were located in Oakland and coached by Bill Callahan. He would make sense in Las Vegas if the team moves on from interim head coach Rich Bisaccia.

There is not as obvious of a connection between Harbaugh and the Vikings franchise as those that exist to the Bears and the Raiders jobs. Minnesota, however, has the best offensive roster to offer, which could prove more valuable to the prospective head coach than any past ties.

The debate between Vikings QB Kirk Cousins and Raiders QB Derek Carr aside — which nine out of 10 times would end up in hair splitting on who is better and why, anyway — Minnesota has arguably the best wide receiver duo in the NFL with Adam Thielen playing second fiddle to Justin Jefferson, who is already among the league’s top pass catchers in just his sophomore season. Vikings running back Dalvin Cook has also been named a Pro-Bowler in each of his last three years and is showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

While the Minnesota offense will be expensive to keep together in a way that could hamper maneuverability elsewhere on the roster, Harbaugh could well be swayed by the chance to coach an array of top skill players with an established entity under center — even if that means skipping a chance to lead the NFL franchise that drafted him or joining up with Carr and company in the desert.

Beyond that, the NFC North looks to be a far more favorable landscape for division titles and playoff berths in the immediate future than does the AFC West. The Vikings were better than the Bears and the Detroit Lions this year and played the Green Bay Packers tough, splitting the season series and winning the contest in which both teams were closest to full strength.

The AFC West, at the very least, will produce a Super Bowl-contending Kansas City Chiefs team for the next five years, assuming the relative health of QB Patrick Mahomes. The Los Angeles Chargers are captained by a young and upcoming signal caller in Justin Herbert and have talent all over the field, from WR Keenan Allen to RB Austin Ekeler to pass rusher extraordinaire Joey Bosa. The Denver Broncos, meanwhile, boast a top-10 defense this season, field highly-skilled position players on offense and will be serious contenders during the coming offseason to pluck Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers out of Green Bay — a move that, if it occurred, would strengthen the AFC West even further while leaving a vacuum to be filled at the top of an increasingly weakening NFC North.

The Vikings could easily prove the most favorable opportunity for Harbaugh should he choose to return to the NFL. The only question that remains, is will Minnesota be interested in him?

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