Getty Images

Adapted from The Price: What It Takes to Win in College Football's Era of Chaos by Armen Keteyian and John Talty to be published by Harper Books, August 27, 2024. The Price is an in-depth look at an inflection point in college football where name, image and likeness, the transfer portal and conference realignment have turned the sport upside down. 

Written by six-time New York Times best-selling author Keteyian and award-winning national college football reporter Talty, The Price features sweeping coast-to-coast reporting that includes more than two hundred wide-ranging interviews with head coaches, athletic directors, conference commissioners, administrators, politicians, power brokers, stakeholders, thought leaders, agents and media executives at a time of tumultuous change in big-time college football. Those interviews revealed never-before-reported details on major players such as Nick Saban, Jim Harbaugh, Jimbo Fisher and Lane Kiffin, plus the behind-the-scenes story behind Georgia quarterback Jaden Rashada's decision to sue Florida head coach Billy Napier in an unprecedented lawsuit.

You can preorder a copy of The Price here

No sooner had Jim Harbaugh hoisted the national championship trophy than members of his inner circle were advising him to ride off into the sunset.

With good reason. As it turned out, Harbaugh had found himself getting squeezed from both sides -- by a process he hated and a place he loved.

In the wake of the Connor Stalions sign-stealing investigation, NCAA enforcement had made yet another sweeping request for Harbaugh's school-issued and personal cell-phone records dating back eighteen months. In response, Harbaugh's attorney Tom Mars wrote a stinging email, saying he would need to review 6,199 emails plus texts, and oh by the way, your request is illegal under Michigan employment and privacy laws, "outrageous and offensive and without probable cause." (And it wasn't just Harbaugh. The NCAA had demanded similar records from the entire coaching staff only to drop that request.)

In the end, Mars knew Harbaugh would eventually face two Committee on Infractions hearings before what he deemed a hostile crowd and a certain suspension that could cost him half-a-season -- or more.

"I will tell you this," said Mars, "I told [Harbaugh agent] Don Yee and Jim as clearly as I could, more than once, more than twice, that in my opinion if he stayed at Michigan . . . the COI is going to punish Jim under the vicarious coaches' responsibility legislation, and he's dealing with a COI that's clearly manifested bias against him. He's going to sit out four games, maybe six, and whatever we do the COI is going to find him guilty."

On the other side, by this time, Michigan had offered to make Harbaugh the highest-paid coach in college football -- a rollover five-year contract north of $11 million per year plus additional performance-based bonuses. In exchange, university lawyers had pressed for termination language that would protect the school in the event of an unforeseen turn in the sign-stealing investigation. 

"I think where the stumbling block came was trying to find the best way to handle any additional information from the second case we didn't know at the time of [contract] signing," athlete director Warde Manuel told us. 

"So to your question did this affect Jim's decision to go to the NFL? I don't know," said Mars. "But I know I told him under the circumstances I could not imagine any reason why he would not take the opportunity to go to the NFL if it presented itself."

In the hours and days after the national championship game, Harbaugh had swatted away every last query about his future -- "I just want to enjoy this," he said. "I hope you can give me that. Can a guy have that?"-- choosing instead to bang a familiar drum, suggesting slashing 5-to-10 percent off coaching salaries and the television deals to create a pot to pay players.

"There used to be an old saying: Old coaches -- my dad's used it, my brother's used it -- we're all robbing the same train here," he said. "Like coaches, administrators, media, television stations, conferences, NCAA. And the ones that are really robbing the train, the ones that could easily get hurt, are getting a very small piece."

Back in Ann Arbor, Harbaugh and the team had returned to a hero's welcome. At the end of a raucous national championship parade before tens of thousands of adoring fans, Harbaugh, true to his quirky inquisitive nature, invoked, from memory, part of the St. Crispin's Day speech by King Henry V, as written by William Shakespeare, inserting a few of his stars at the top.

J. J. McCarthy, the MVP. Corum and Sainristil. Keegan and Zinter. Jenkins and Barnett.

Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd. This story shall the good man teach his son; and Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by. From this day to the ending of the world, but we in it will be remember'd; we few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he to-day that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile. This day shall gentle his condition.

And gentlemen in England now a-bed shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhood cheap whiles any speaks that fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

Team One-Forty-Four. We salute you: A band of brothers.

Thank you.

That left Manuel to answer the question the athletic director said he had only heard about five hundred times riding alone in the back of a pickup truck – take that for what it's worth – on the parade route that day: 

"I am working on getting this man a new contract."

During a two-day getaway with his wife Sarah on Coronado Island off the coast of San Diego, Harbaugh unloaded to longtime friend Todd Anson. He told Anson he wanted to remain at Michigan but believed Manuel—no matter his public pronouncements—was not the advocate he needed in his corner, particularly in front of the Board of Regents. He also raged against Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti, who before the three-game Big Ten suspension had promised to meet Harbaugh in Ann Arbor and brief him on what the conference was doing, only to stand him up. [Through a spokesperson, Petitti declined an interview request.] 

The day after his outburst to Anson, Harbaugh had an initial interview with the Los Angeles Chargers. Afterward, his tone had softened. Leaning toward taking the NFL job, if offered, he dialed down the Manuel rhetoric, no longer interested in a potential legal battle and fighting people he later said were "gunning for me." It suggested in attitude and tone that his days in Ann Arbor were numbered.

Indeed they were.

On Wednesday, Jan. 24, news broke that Harbaugh had agreed to a five-year contract to be the next head coach of the Chargers at a reported $16 million per year. Done with the NCAA and the frustrating U of M contract jabber, thrilled to be wanted by the Spanos family, intrigued by the prospect of taking Justin Herbert, the team's dynamic young quarterback, to another level.

Manuel told Austin Meek of The Athletic he was "at peace" with the effort to retain Harbaugh, despite a torrent of criticism circulating on U of M blogs and websites.

"I hear about what was happening on social media, some of the language and things that people directed my way," Manuel said. "That doesn't take away from the effort we put into it. They have no idea what communication and conversations we had."

Was Manuel surprised at the news? "I don't want to use the word surprised," he told us. "This was the third year Jim had spoken to NFL teams. I can see where people would be interested. As I told Jim, 'I'm sad for us, happy for you if that's what you want to do."'

Growing up Jim Harbaugh's favorite television show was "The Rockford Files," a seventies detective drama whose star, James Garner, played a private investigator who lived in a mobile home in a parking lot on a beach in Malibu. After signing with the Chargers, Harbaugh asked his brother-in-law and two friends to drive his 31-foot Quantum Thor Motor Coach across the country to a RV camping spot he had rented right across from the Pacific in scenic Huntington Beach for $2,700 a month, an effort to decompress after a stress-filled season that had forced a Michigan Man out of the arms of a university he loved.

"I'm just trying to be happy," Harbaugh told former Michigan AD Jim Hackett, ironically, the man who had hired him.