What Makes Jim Harbaugh a Successful Coach?

June 12th, 2024

Jim Harbaugh is a uniquely successful coach in the world of football. Regularly, struggling NFL teams will dip into the college system to find their next head coach, but rarely does it pan out quite as expected. When it comes to Harbaugh, he offers one of the exceptions to the rule.

He managed to jump up from college football to the NFL and swiftly turn one of its bottom-dwelling teams into a Super Bowl contender. Afterwards, he returned to the college ranks with a new turnaround project and achieved record-breaking success. Now, he’s back in the NFL with the Los Angeles Chargers.

So, what made Harbaugh such a major coup for the Chargers, and how has he reached such prominence in the football world?

Statement of intent for the 2024 season

With the Chargers’ schedule out and the glut of free-agency work completed, Jim Harbaugh took the NFL Annual League meeting as his opportunity to lay out his new team’s objectives in 2024. On the field, the offensive line was delved into as a primary focal point this season.

Every other position group on the field relies on the offensive line being strong, the new head coach laid out in his speech. Further, in the trenches, the offensive linemen aren’t relying on any other positions being strong. So, it’s clear that it’s this group working to a high caliber and as one unit that will underpin LA’s offensive success.

A history of sudden success

Harbaugh’s coaching record across college and the pro ranks shows that, eventually, he will craft a very successful football team. From 2004 to 2006, he turned the 7-4 San Diego Toreros from 7-4 to 11-1 and Gridiron Classic winners. For Stanford Cardinal, he transformed a 4-8 team into a 12-1 Pac-10 force and 2010 Orange Bowl victors in four seasons.

He’d already been the Raiders’ QB coach from 2002 to 2003, but in 2011, he got the top job for the San Francisco 49ers. The season prior, they’d finished third in the NFC West with a 6-10 record. One season of Harbaugh got them to 13-3 and NFC Championship runners-up. In his second season, the 11-4-1 49ers went to the Super Bowl.

On that day, it was his brother John who ended up victorious. In 2013, Harbaugh guided a 12-4 49ers back to the NFC Championship game, but the offense capitulated the following season. The defense remained a top-five unit despite many major injuries, but the 8-8 record was greatly down to offensive struggles and a leaky offensive line.

Harbaugh wasn’t out of work for long, though. Michigan snapped him up almost as soon as he became available, which transformed the 5-7 Wolverines into a 10-3 team with a Citrus Bowl triumph in that opening 2016 campaign. Through to 2023, he built a real force in the Big Ten, culminating in a perfect, record-breaking 15-0 season with the Rose Bowl, and CFP National Championship.

A natural pick for more awards this season

Naturally, this success has come with its fair share of awards, including the NFL Coach of the Year in 2011, AP College Football Coach of the Year in 2021, and Big Ten Coach of the Year 2022. For the upcoming 2024 season, he’s the hot favorite to add another award.

As of June 7, Harbaugh is at +650 in the NFL betting to win his second Coach of the Year award, well ahead of Matt Lafleur (+800), Matt Eberflus (+900), and Raheem Morris (+1000). A lot is in his favor for this. Not only does Harbaugh boast a stellar first-season record, but four of the last seven editions of the award went to first-year coaches.

What Harbaugh will bring to the Chargers

Harbaugh is known to some as a kind of quarterback whisperer. Being a former slinger himself, it makes sense that this would be his specialty area. Clearly, he knows the position well, as even the most talented quarterbacks in the NFL would struggle tremendously if they’re under pressure and taking hits regularly.

In Los Angeles, Harbaugh will be looking to get the best out of the immensely talented Justin Herbert. Last season, he suffered a career-high sack percentage when looking to pass 6.0, and lost a career-high of 233 yards, even though he only featured in 13 games. Of everything discussed in the AFC breakfast speech, this angle will be the most influential on Harbaugh’s success in 2024.

As for the overall strategy, it’ll likely be a case of doing what he does best. The so-called “smash mouth” strategy continues to win out under his regime, even when the trends try to push him elsewhere. As Forbes reports, it’s a tried and true strategy that may be somewhat slow, but does offer a clear path to victory – especially as he’s refined it so successfully over the decades.

Jim Harbaugh is a players’ coach, knows how to get the best out of his stars, and is just that right degree of mad that gets his team revved up and ready to go all-out for him on the field. Inheriting a decent team, despite the offseason losses, he’s in a good position to quickly turn around the Chargers’ fortunes in his first year.

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