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Zulgad: Never a dull moment: Hiring Harbaugh would be the latest splash move by Vikings

NCAA Football: Orange Bowl-Georgia at Michigan
Dec 31, 2021; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh reacts from the sideline during the second half in the Orange Bowl college football CFP national semifinal game against the Georgia Bulldogs at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rhona Wise-USA TODAY Sports

There were some who dismissed recent speculation the Vikings had interest in interviewing Jim Harbaugh for their head coaching job. Harbaugh had a 44-19-1 record in four seasons with San Francisco and took the 49ers to the 2012 Super Bowl, but the quirky, khaki-wearing coach also was known for a sometimes abrasive style that could rub players and his bosses the wrong way.

So it made little sense to many that the Vikings — a team whose owners haven’t  stopped using the word collaboration since general manager Rick Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer were fired on Jan. 10 — would even consider the 58-year-old Harbaugh.

The problem with that thought process was simple: These are the Vikings and Zygi and Mark Wilf love to make a splash whenever possible. So it should not have come as a big surprise on Saturday afternoon when Pro Football Talk reported that Harbaugh will interview for the Vikings job.

Anyone who follows New York Times best-selling author John U. Bacon on Twitter, already was aware something was going on. Bacon, who wrote a 2019 book titled “Overtime: Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines at the crossroads of college football,” first tweeted the Vikings were interested in Harbaugh on Jan. 24. Bacon has made it clear he thinks Harbaugh will stay at Michigan, but also has encouraged people not to dismiss the possibility of a move back to the NFL.

That possibility now appears far more real. New Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Harbaugh worked together for two years in the 49ers organization. Adofo-Mensah was just breaking into an NFL front office job and was the 49ers’ manager of football research and development.

It’s unclear how much contact there was between the two, but there undoubtedly will be a lot of contact if Harbaugh leaves Michigan after seven seasons. Harbaugh is 59-23 as the Wolverines’ coach and has taken the program to six bowl games. This season, Michigan went 11-1 during the regular season, including 8-1 in the conference, and tied for first place in the Big Ten East. Michigan ended its regular season with a 42-27 victory over arch-rival Ohio State to win the East and advance to the conference championship game.

A 42-3 victory over Iowa landed the Wolverines in the Orange Bowl as part of the College Football Playoff. Georgia, the eventual national champion, routed Michigan, 34-11. So why would Harbaugh leave now after finally beating Ohio State and having such a successful season?

Coming off a disappointing 2-4 finish in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Harbaugh had his base salary cut from $8 million to $4 million as part of a four-year contract extension that enabled him to keep his job. The new contract was loaded with incentives — many of which Harbaugh reached in 2021 — but he and his wife, Sarah, redistributed all of the bonus money to employees of the Michigan athletic department who had taken pay cuts.

Harbaugh, who played college football for Bo Schembechler at Michigan before beginning a 14-year career as a quarterback in the NFL, attempted to downplay having his salary cut when asked about it before the Orange Bowl. “I reacted, ‘No big deal,'” he said. “Attacking each day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind, as always. It didn’t really mean anything to me. It’s just money.”

But there is more of it to be made in the NFL and Harbaugh might want to take one more swing at trying to win a Super Bowl. The 49ers lost to the Ravens, coached by Jim’s brother John, in January 2013. Harbaugh is still only 1-5 against Ohio State and failing to beat the Buckeyes means the season is a failure to Michigan fans.

The Vikings job would come with plenty of pressure, but there also would be a honeymoon period with fans and ownership. As far as what it would cost the Vikings to get Harbaugh out of his contract, the answer is not much. Harbaugh’s new deal would require him to pay $2 million if he leaves. That isn’t going to stop the Vikings from hiring him.

What might is how his interview goes with Adofo-Mensah and the Vikings committee of seven, who have been conducting the coaching search. The question is how much control would the Wilfs give to Harbaugh and are they confident he could get along with an inexperienced general manager? The last thing ownership would want is a repeat of the reported Spielman and Zimmer falling out.

Of course, these are the Wilfs and they have a long history of loving to see their franchise make headlines. Whether that be trading for Jared Allen in 2008, signing Brett Favre in 2009 or signing Kirk Cousins in 2018. This team has made no lack of splash moves with the Wilfs in control and hiring Harbaugh certainly would qualify.

The three favorites entering Saturday were believed to be Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell and defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, as well as 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans. On Saturday, Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham was added to the mix. The first three are still coaching with the Rams and 49ers set to meet in the NFC title game on Sunday.

Three of the four don’t have NFL head coaching experience — Morris coached the Buccaneers and was the interim coach in Atlanta — and all would come with legitimate question marks. So would Harbaugh. The difference is hiring Harbaugh would create the type of buzz the Wilfs often can’t resist.