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HARBAUGH BURNS, WARREN FLEES: COLLEGE FOOTBALL ISN’T ALL THAT
Make no mistake, the NFL is where everyone wants to be, as the Michigan coach’s wandering eye is rebuffed again and a coup-exultant Big Ten boss couldn’t wait to leapfrog to … the Chicago Bears?
For a fluke hiccup there — or was it a beer-bong burp? — college football actually seemed as mammoth as the NFL. Maybe it was during one of those four-hour sensory explosions, when 100 points overload the scoreboard and gamblers consider fentanyl binges. The sudden bloat of Kirk Herbstreit’s waistline was commensurate with big interest in real-world disruption, the kind that makes marching bands and dance girls obsolete, not to mention books and study halls.
You saw it: frantic conference realignment, rampant backstabbing among industry power players and an ungodly grab of TV billions, this as high-school quarterbacks commanded NIL deals nearing $8 million with programs they couldn’t find on Google Maps if given clues of “Knoxville” and “Gainesville.” And wasn’t it so much fun to follow, even if none of it was very collegiate? Yeah, it was quite the rager.
But then Jim Harbaugh tried to escape Michigan for the second straight winter, despite promises to his boss that his eyes no longer would wander upward. And suddenly, college football returned to its realistic place as a stepping stone to a league where 32 franchises are worth a collective $140 billion. The NFL is such an all-superior monster, it could swallow the Big House in one bite and emit a belch heard from Athens to Fort Worth.
It’s not difficult to read the mind of a career manipulator. Harbaugh has unfinished business in the big leagues, where he came within a series of incomplete passes of beating his brother in Super Bowl XLVII. His feelings were wounded when his annual salary in Ann Arbor was slashed by about $4 million in 2020, a gouge he overcame with successive stompings of Ohio State and two College Football Playoff berths. Now, he ached to parlay his newfound leverage and return to the NFL. In a way, you couldn’t blame him. Who needs transfer portals, volatile NIL collectives, obnoxious boosters and young players who skirt the law, such as Mazi Smith, the defensive lineman busted with a loaded gun in his vehicle?
Like a prisoner fleeing Alcatraz, Harbaugh attempted another jailbreak, this time fueled by an NCAA infractions case — he denies lying to investigators about alleged violations within the program — that could lead to a multi-game suspension for the head coach. And just like before, when the Minnesota Vikings rejected him, the Denver Broncos made it clear after a Zoom interview that they weren’t as interested in him as he was in them. He spoke to the Carolina Panthers, but owner David Tepper characterized it as a chat, not an official interview. The Indianapolis Colts, the team he served in his quarterbacking days as Captain Comeback? They’ve interviewed a dozen candidates, but not him.
His college leverage meant nothing. The NFL saw right through him. When he crawled back to Michigan — again — he informed the university president, Santa Ono, who called it “fantastic news that I have communicated to our Athletic Director Warde Manuel.” Awkward. Why didn’t Harbaugh call Manuel, his old Michigan teammate, the one who cut his salary but still retained him? Because they haven’t been on speaking terms, no doubt a result of Harbaugh resuming his NFL pursuits and breaking his promise. It’s a continuation of the management disconnect that has followed him forever, dating back to his San Francisco 49ers days, when he was fired two seasons after winning an NFC title. The prevailing college angle here: Jungle Jim will get another pay bump, on top of his annual increase to $7.3 million last offseason, and he’s back on a campus where the president, fans and players adore him and where he’ll no doubt contend for another Big Ten title and CFP appearance next season.
But in the grander picture, Harbaugh’s latest swing and miss is another reminder of the massive gulf between the college game and the almighty NFL. Everyone wants to be on the next level — think Kirby Smart wouldn’t jump from Georgia if the Atlanta Falcons offered $18 million a year? — but the NFL is nothing if not insular. It operates in a hermetically sealed bubble, rarely poking outside to consider what’s happening on Saturdays. Briefly, when the league decided to stream a game next season on Black Friday, it was a swat at the traditional popularity of college football on the day after Thanksgiving. Otherwise, examine the most recent TV numbers.
Georgia’s steamrolling of TCU attracted only 16.62 million viewers on ESPN, rock-bottom for a CFP championship game, with an alternative cast drawing another 597,000. If you want to blame the 65-7 romp for the paltry ratings, the data wasn’t much better for two classic semifinal games: 22.4 million total for the Georgia-Ohio State thriller, 21.4 million total for TCU’s exciting victory over Michigan.
Last weekend, still weeks from the Super Bowl, the NFL staged five wild-card games that mostly blew away the college playoff numbers. More than 33 million watched the New York Giants beat the Vikings. More than 31 million watched what hopefully was Tom Brady’s last hurrah. More than 30 million watched America’s adopted rooting interest, the Buffalo Bills, beat Miami. A Sunday night game between two small-market operations, Cincinnati and Baltimore, attracted 28.6 million. Even a nondescript game, which boomed into a historic Jacksonville comeback, lured 21.8 million on a Saturday night. This weekend, expect two Sunday showdowns — Bills vs. Bengals, then a 49ers-Dallas collision that feels like a title game — to approach the record for a divisional-round game: 48.5 million for Packers-Cowboys in 2017. Both of the conference championship games could top 50 million. The Super Bowl will coax around 100 million, a five-fold trumping of the CFP title game.
So why wouldn’t Harbaugh want another taste of an NFL extravaganza that has surpassed every other form of American entertainment? Why wouldn’t he want to stay one step ahead of the NCAA, toothless as it is these days? Don’t dare believe him when he says, head between his legs: “I love the relationships that I have at Michigan — coaches, staff, families, administration, president Santa Ono and especially the players and their families. My heart is at the University of Michigan. I once heard a wise man say, ‘Don't try to out-happy, happy.’ Go Blue!" But that’s exactly what he did: He tried to out-happy, happy. And he did it twice. Will he try again next offseason, when two NFL gigs in Los Angeles might open? Or a post-Brady opportunity in Tampa?
If I had a son who was a major football prospect, I’d send him anywhere but where Harbaugh is coaching. Who knows when he’ll knock on an NFL door next, tired of his AD and everyone else in Go Blue Land? Who needs the hassles of modern-day college coaching, the care-taking of kids and parents, the challenges that require his oversight when the Broncos and Vikings have owners and general managers who handle matters? Only hours after his call to the Michigan president — the most famous Ono since Yoko — his prized offensive assistant, Matt Weiss, was placed on leave amid a police investigation of alleged “computer access crimes” at Michigan’s football facility. Here’s another fire alarm for Harbaugh, not long after he greased Smith’s legal skids. Weiss was integral in creating a potent balanced offense the last two seasons, grooming quarterback J.J. McCarthy for the big time and turning loose running back Blake Corum before he suffered a knee injury. Both will be back this year. Will Weiss be with them? Not if he’s a criminal hacker. It’s another problem that will be used against Harbaugh in recruiting, which is why Michigan’s run might not be lengthy, especially with USC entering the Big Ten in 2024.
Speaking of which … did you see how suddenly Kevin Warren jumped from the commissionership of the Big Ten to the positions of president and CEO with the Chicago Bears? Wouldn’t his move be more tangible evidence that college football is a means-of-entry to the NFL?
Not long ago, Warren was triggering a revolution, luring USC and UCLA to his league in Hollywood cahoots with Fox Sports executives. The $7.5 billion-plus, seven-year media rights arrangement — also including CBS and NBC — one-upped a Southeastern Conference colossus that loves to say of football down yonder, “It just means more.” Warren brought untold riches to the powerhouse likes of Ohio State and Michigan and less-worthy peripherals such as Rutgers and Northwestern, and when they’re done counting, each of the 16 schools will bring in around $75 million in annual TV money. That’s more than $18 million more, per school, than the SEC offers. Warren declared war on his Southern rival, only he didn’t want any Mason-Dixon line. He wanted the entire damned nation, from New York and Washington in the East, through Chicago in the heartland, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. It took guts, sneaking away from a so-called “alliance” with the Pac-12 and ACC that was formed after the SEC poached Texas and Oklahoma. Warren didn’t want to just hold off the domain of Nick Saban, the Dawgs, the Swamp, Death Valley, the Grove, the Plains and, soon, the Longhorns and Sooners.
He preferred to whip their asses and execute a takeover. He did just that.
And last week, Warren was so eager to move on from his masterpiece that he signed with an NFL laughingstock, the family-owned Chicago Bears, who not only can’t find a real quarterback but still need a place to call home. They’d like Warren to create a palace similar to U.S. Bank Stadium, built during his tenure as Vikings’ COO before he entered college athletics. Here’s the problem: The McCaskeys, who’ve been allowed to wreck the franchise only because 100-year-old Virginia McCaskey is Papa Bear Halas’ daughter, are weighing whether to shovel dirt from a plot of land in northwest suburbia. U.S. Bank Stadium, which rises like a glass chapel, is breathtaking because it’s on the Minneapolis skyline. Arlington Heights doesn’t have such vistas. Those of us who’ve been to the site of shuttered Arlington International Racecourse, near the juncture of Northwest Highway and Euclid Avenue, know it as a gateway to Iowa, across the street from a McDonald’s and Tuff Shed, 33 expressway miles from the Chicago lakefront. The Bears are better off in the city, but attempts to renovate and enclose Soldier Field are inane, and paying for land nearby doesn’t interest George McCaskey, who used to be the ticket manager before he was named chairman.
The Bears want the obscure site as a multipurpose revenue generator, to accompany the obscene riches they already reap from the league, though they’ve won only one of the 56 Super Bowls. Warren could have stayed in the Big Ten office forever and not had these thorny issues, these meetings with politicians, these civic debates about suburbs vs. tradition. That he departed so easily, amid anonymous potshots around the conference and the sport, doesn’t speak well for the Big Ten or college football. Where there’s an influx of money, there’s grimy subterfuge. He was tired of the b.s. If Warren was a financial hero on 16 campuses, he also was a national target for derision. His nemesis, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, couldn’t resist an outgoing salvo during Georgia’s national championship celebration: “We need leaders today in college football and sports. Not leaders who make a stop to build a resume and go on to something else, but those who understand the problems ahead are real and demand our attention.”
Instead, Warren’s leadership will be applied inside the corridors of Halas Hall, the team headquarters in Lake Forest. He might not fix the conundrum at quarterback, where he is endorsing run-first/pass-second Justin Fields. He might not get the stadium built where he wants it. And it certainly won’t look like U.S. Bank Stadium. Never forget why Chicago is called the Windy City. It’s not because of the gusts that whip off the water and leave a man numb, such as me on the 10-below-zero night my car wouldn’t start in the Soldier Field parking garage and froze my parka against my chest hair. It’s windy because the politicos, not just the ones in office, are drunk with bluster.
But as he deals with them, Kevin Warren will feel like he’s in the big leagues. Especially if he loses patience with coach Matt Eberflus, before we learn how to pronounce his name, and calls Jim Harbaugh with an offer.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.