Jim Harbaugh is officially off to the NFL with the Los Angeles Chargers. His tenure in Ann Arbor ends with a national championship and a parade, the kind of fanfare that Michigan fans long dreamed of and will remember forever.
So what does Harbaugh’s departure mean for the Big Ten after Michigan won three consecutive conference championships? One of the most central and polarizing figures in the sport is gone. Harbaugh’s departure brings even more change to a conference that is expanding from coast to coast by adding USC, UCLA, Washington and Oregon.
Several of The Athletic’s Big Ten writers put their heads together to try to figure out what to make of Harbaugh’s tenure at Michigan and where the conference stands without him.
What does Harbaugh leaving mean for the Big Ten?
Scott Dochterman: Harbaugh was a magnet for controversy, whether it was tweaking the SEC about satellite camps, taking his team to Europe for spring break or straddling the line when it came to rules. However, championship coaches aren’t just readymade, and he was one of the best to do it in the Big Ten. To win three consecutive league titles and claim the final four-team College Football Playoff crown put his coaching prowess on display. He was a Michigan man, which means he was a Big Ten man. It’s going to be difficult for Michigan to replace him, and the Big Ten loses more than an eccentric personality. It loses a winner.
Audrey Snyder: The conference just got a lot less zany — and I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. Harbaugh always drew a crowd, whether at media days, satellite camps, his boundary-pushing spring break team trips or, of course, on fall Saturdays. He was always pushing the envelope, and some of these creative wrinkles away from the field were eye-opening for other teams as they tried to keep pace. His success as a coach is indisputable, but to me, so many of the other details around the game helped separate him and forced other teams to try to mimic him. Now, some might say he tried to bend the rules too much with some of these endeavors, but give the man credit for the creativity. Plus, who else in this conference would show up to Big Ten media days with a Mike Ditka jersey like Harbaugh did in 2015?
Cameron Teague Robinson: The conference is losing a massive personality. In an era when coaches can be pretty dry and afraid to share too much information, Harbaugh will be missed because of how much he doesn’t care about what people think about him. He’ll continue to be talked about in the Big Ten, especially as the sign-stealing/in-person scouting investigation continues, but the Big Ten will miss having a villain. Ohio State and Michigan will be the premier programs in the conference, but Ryan Day isn’t the polarizing figure that Harbaugh is. College football needs those types of coaches.
Jesse Temple: It means that one of the most polarizing coaches in the sport no longer occupies a space in the league — although it’s safe to assume he’ll continue to be a topic of conversation for some time. Whether you loved him or loved to hate him, Harbaugh and his antics generated attention nationally for Michigan and the Big Ten. He also brought a national championship to a league that had not won one since 2014. Michigan set the standard in the Big Ten the past three seasons, and now it will be up to the next man in line to keep the Wolverines at that level in a changing landscape for the program and the conference.
Austin Meek: College football is basically a TV show, and the Big Ten just lost one of its main characters. The monster ratings for Michigan games were due at least in part to Harbaugh and the storylines he inspired. Not all of those storylines were flattering for the Big Ten, with Michigan’s sign-stealing scandal being the obvious example. Even if they couldn’t stand the guy, a lot of fans tuned in to see what Harbaugh was going to do or say. Harbaugh and Nick Saban were arguably the two most recognizable coaches in college football, and now they’re both gone. The Big Ten and SEC won’t be the same without them.
Meek: Jim Harbaugh at Michigan could have ended badly. Instead, he delivered a parade.
Who’s the best coach in the revamped Big Ten?
Dochterman: The best head coach moniker largely goes to the person who leads the most successful team. Luke Fickell (2019) and Kirk Ferentz (2015) were consensus national coach of the year award winners, but they’re not considered the top Big Ten coach because their teams aren’t national title contenders. With that standard, I’d put Ryan Day at the top. He took Ohio State to three College Football Playoff berths and a championship appearance. The Buckeyes were a field goal against Georgia in the semifinals from perhaps winning a national title in 2022. Of course, if Day can’t beat Michigan in November (or perhaps early December), this all was written in invisible ink.
Snyder: Can we declare Day the winner of the offseason already after Harbaugh’s departure or what? Day officially gets elevated to the top spot. Yes, he inherited a tremendously talented program, and with the exception of beating Michigan — a big exception — he’s largely kept the program humming. A 56-8 record with three appearances in the College Football Playoff is tough to argue against. Now, who is the second-best coach in this conference? It’s going to be a lot of fun trying to figure that out next season, especially with coaches like Dan Lanning and Lincoln Riley arriving too.
Teague Robinson: As much as Ohio State fans hate how he coaches in big games, the answer is Day. He has a 56-8 record, and if it wasn’t for Harbaugh getting in his head somehow, one could argue Day would have five Big Ten championships and maybe even a national championship. I don’t think that’s up for debate, but who is the second best definitely is. I think it’s probably Lanning, and I don’t think he’s that far off from Day. We’ll get a good look at how they coach against each other when Ohio State goes to Oregon on Oct. 12.
Temple: It’s hard to deny the overall success Day has had at Ohio State, particularly when compared with every other current coach in the league. He is an astounding 39-3 in Big Ten games — it just so happens all three losses came the past three seasons to Michigan. Ohio State has finished in the top 10 nationally in each of his five full seasons, and the Buckeyes have a top-three recruiting class on the way for 2024.
Meek: Day is clearly the coach with the most to gain from Harbaugh’s departure. Is he the best coach in the Big Ten? Maybe, but if I had to place a futures bet on a coach who’s going to thrive in a post-Harbaugh Big Ten, I’d go with Dan Lanning at Oregon. He has a lot of the same qualities that have made Day successful at Ohio State without the outsized pressure from his fan base.
Dochterman: If Oregon can successfully navigate the intense travel schedule, the Ducks are ahead of the rest of the Big Ten. If Penn State can rebuild its defensive line, it has a chance to play Ohio State twice. I like quarterback Drew Allar and I think Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen are terrific running backs. But I can’t put the Nittany Lions No. 2 today. I do think some team is going to come from under-the-radar, like Wisconsin or Iowa, to contend for the second spot opposite Ohio State.
Snyder: Oregon. While this conference will have plenty of new quarterbacks in 2024 — hello, Washington, USC, Ohio State and Michigan, among other contenders — Lanning’s team with its own QB overhaul from the portal led by Dillon Gabriel should be best positioned to push the Buckeyes as the conference’s top team. Mark those calendars for Oct. 12 when Ohio State travels to Eugene.
Teague Robinson: Oregon. Gabriel and Lanning together is a scary combo. That’s going to be a major test for Ohio State, especially on the road. It wouldn’t surprise me if Oregon wins that game and the two teams meet again in the Big Ten title game. Lanning made the right decision staying at Oregon, because he could make an immediate impact in the Big Ten.
Temple: I’m joining the chorus and picking Oregon. Adding a transfer portal quarterback like Gabriel, who is coming off a season at Oklahoma in which he threw for 3,660 yards with 30 touchdowns and six interceptions, is a huge win for the Ducks. But Oregon’s schedule highlights why nothing about the new Big Ten is going to be easy (or a guarantee when making predictions). Home games include Ohio State and Washington. Road games include Michigan and Wisconsin. Never before has the league been this good and this intriguing.
Meek: As everyone is pointing out, the answer here is Oregon. I can’t put Michigan in the top tier of contenders based on everything the Wolverines have lost since the national championship game. But if Sherrone Moore is Michigan’s next head coach, the philosophy isn’t going to change. We know Michigan’s style of play gives Ohio State trouble. I need to see that the Buckeyes have solved that before awarding them the upper hand in the rivalry.
Wasserman: Jim Harbaugh won a title, revived the Ohio State rivalry — stop with the ‘cheating’ crying
What’s your lasting memory of Harbaugh in the Big Ten?
Dochterman: For sure it’s his quirkiness. Whenever he’d face questions at a media day event, Harbaugh sometimes acted like he was playing mental solitaire while delivering an answer. And it was fascinating when he brought up the time he was hit by a vehicle in Iowa City as a 7-year-old shortly after his father became an Iowa assistant coach.
Snyder: This is weird and quite specific, but watching Harbaugh warm up before coaching a game was one of the most entertaining parts of every Penn State-Michigan game day. I looked forward to watching it because it was so unusual. He’d be out there slinging the ball around like he was the starting quarterback. With cleats and gloves, he was locked in and ready to roll. In a sport where so many coaches are uptight and pacing around the field during warmups, Harbaugh’s youthful enthusiasm for the game put him on par with those he was coaching. You never knew what he was going to say or do. Dealing with that only in small doses was quite entertaining.
Teague Robinson: There are so many. I think his success leaves a lasting impact on Ann Arbor just because of the grind it took for him to build the program up. But for one specific memory, for me, it’s the “born on third base” line when he was referring to Day. It comes up every year at the end of the season, and I’m sure Day wishes he would have beaten Harbaugh as a response, but that line just stirred up the rivalry and animosity between the two coaches even more. That’s the type of stuff that rivalry games need.
Temple: Michigan’s first “Signing with the Stars” event back in 2016 stands out because it highlighted Harbaugh’s understanding of how to generate excitement for the program in a way that no other coach had done. He celebrated signing his recruiting class with a live show and an impressive and eclectic guest list that included Tom Brady, Derek Jeter, Ric Flair and the hip-hop group Migos, among others. And when Harbaugh dedicates himself to something, he is all-in. So, he danced on stage with Migos while being doused with bottles of water and posed backstage wearing an iced-out necklace and watch — all part of the bizarre and entertaining Harbaugh experience.
Meek: Everybody who’s been around Ann Arbor long enough has a Harbaugh story, so here’s mine. It was Halloween 2022, right after the incident in the Michigan Stadium tunnel with players from Michigan and Michigan State. I was trick-or-treating with my kids and trying to chase down information about the police investigation. I felt a tap on my shoulder, turned around, and it was … either Jim Harbaugh or the most convincing Jim Harbaugh costume ever created. He was a huge celebrity, but in Ann Arbor he could also be a regular guy who went trick-or-treating with his family and helped his neighbors clear the debris after an ice storm. I doubt it will be that way in L.A.
(Top photo: Aaron J. Thornton / Getty Images)