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Michigan coaching candidates: If Jim Harbaugh leaves for the NFL, here’s who could take over the Wolverines

Whether Jim Harbaugh remains coach at Michigan will resolve itself soon enough. The ramifications of a potential departure, however, are already clear.

Harbaugh is indeed interested in returning to the NFL with one source telling CBS Sports that Harbaugh “definitely” wants back into the league. News broke over the weekend that the Michigan coach “conveyed legitimate interest” in the Minnesota Vikings job. The Miami Dolphins are also reportedly in the mix, though team owner and powerful Michigan donor Stephen Ross has previously said he’s “not going to be the person that takes Jim Harbaugh from the University of Michigan”.

If Coach Khaki leaves the maize and blue, he will be able to do so while holding his head high. Harbaugh fulfilled his destiny in 2021 by beating The Team Down South (Ohio State), winning the Big Ten championship in dominant fashion and earning a berth in the College Football Playoff. It took until Year 7, but at least it happened.

Now for the hard part. If Harbaugh stays, that head being held high would still be hitting a cement ceiling. Last season was arguably a unicorn for the Harbaugh-Michigan era in a league dominated by Ohio State and a sport dominated by the SEC. It also came as Harbaugh agreed to a reduction in his contract terms based on his performance through his first six seasons with the Wolverines.

Michigan did reach the big stage, but the question is whether it can stay there. If Harbaugh remains in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for Year 8 and beyond, he will be expected to wash, rinse and repeat the success he and his program enjoyed in 2021. That has to enter significantly into his decision.

And let’s face it … Georgia might have shown how far Michigan has to go to reach the pinnacle during the Bulldogs’ 34-11 rout of the Wolverines in the Orange Bowl semifinal of the College Football Playoff. 

All of this should be packaged with the usual disclaimer: This is Jim Harbaugh. Anything can happen.

With plenty of smoke surrounding the fire, Harbaugh was still on the recruiting trail last week in anticipation of Wednesday’s traditional National Signing Day.

Only Harbaugh knows where he intends to coach next season, but if Michigan is left without a coach with the carousel having previously come to a full stop, it will need to act fast to retain its recruiting class and prepare for spring practice.

Here would be the top candidates to lead the Wolverines should Harbaugh depart.

Josh Gattis, Michigan offensive coordinator: If Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel is going to stay in house, Gattis is the most likely candidate. The Wolverines offensive coordinator went from question mark in 2019 and 2020 to hot property in 2021 by getting production out of an offense that didn’t change scheme. UM was simply better running the same plays with Gattis developing running backs Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum as well as quarterback Cade McNamara. If Michigan is going to keep challenging Ohio State, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if Gattis’ offensive mind is leading the program.

Matt Rhule, Carolina Panthers coach: Sources are already indicating Rhule would be interested if the Michigan job comes open. The former Baylor coach has been retained after a pair of five-win seasons with the Panthers. Is it me or does this cerebral program-builder like Rhule seem to be a better fit in college?

Bill O’Brien, Alabama offensive coordinator: It’s surprising that Obie didn’t snag a college or pro job by now coming off a successful debut at Alabama. That could be a function of him not being available until late in the carousel with the Crimson Tide going all the way to the CFP National Championship. Nevertheless, O’Brien appears rejuvenated and professionally rehabbed. It also helps that Bryce Young won the Heisman Trophy under his watch.

Matt Campbell, Iowa State coach: At this late stage, especially with signing day approaching, it is extremely doubtful Campbell would leave the Cyclones. He’s got those kind of ethics after essentially promising an entire recruiting class he’d be there. But Campbell has gone from the next Bill Snyder — a program-builder who stays forever — to a guy who would only be interested in Ohio State or Notre Dame to perhaps listening to other offers. History shows what Campbell has built in Ames, Iowa, cannot endure consistently.

P.J. Fleck, Minnesota coach: Fleck is young and accomplished with ties to the state having led Western Michigan to a New Year’s Six bowl. But he also signed a seven-year extension in November. Sure, Michigan is a better job and he could make more money there. But, again, it is so late in the process that it would be hard to see Fleck leave Minny in February.

Mike Hart, Michigan running backs coach: Big Brother’s name keeps popping up on candidate lists, but c’mon, if Hart gets the job, it’s because Manuel would have struck out on the names above. Hart is 35 and has been a running backs coach for 10 years, just completing his first at his alma mater. He’ll have to leave and get a starter job, or two, before being ready for one of the biggest stages at Michigan.  

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