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Papa Bear Would Hire Jim Harbaugh

George McCaskey, your grandfather would make this simple.

2024 CFP National Championship - Michigan v Washington Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

“I like his ability to handle himself and handle other people, and I know he’ll do a good job getting people to play according to his desires.”

— George Halas, January 20, 1982, announcing Mike Ditka as head coach of the Bears

“I recall George Halas was in his 80s when he made a then very controversial but ultimately successful selection for a head coach...”

— George McCaskey, January 10, 2022, discussing the hiring process of Bears head coach

The Bears technically have a head coach.

Jim Harbaugh technically has a job.

If the Bears get rid of their head coach, they’re arguably the most exciting landing spot for a head coach.

If Jim Harbaugh gets rid of his job, he’s arguably the most exciting NFL head coach prospect.

I’m not saying the Bears must hire Harbaugh fresh off leading Michigan to the 2023 national championship. But I am saying this:

George Halas would hire Jim Harbaugh.

He did basically the same thing in 1982 with Mike Ditka.

I’ve had my complaints about the Bears exploiting our history to paper over our horrific present. There is no doubt that George McCaskey loves to lean into the past and seems to avoid steering our beloved Bears into the future. With Harbaugh, McCaskey has a unique chance to do both.

The meathead argument for hiring Harbaugh is that it would be oh so perfect for the Bears to simply pluck a name from an old media guide to lead us into the future, and by the way my frents, how would you like to purchase this throwback #4 in the meantime? Only $149.99.

Yet there is a meathead argument for not hiring Harbaugh, which is the inverse of the above, the notion that simply having played for Da Bearsss should be reason enough to set his resume to da bottom of da pile. It’s the exact meathead argument that Papa Bear himself ignored in 1982 when he grabbed his own steering wheel and pulled his ex-nemesis Ditka away from the Cowboys, where he was coaching their special teams and receivers.

Saying that George Halas took the Bears personally is like saying I take my organs personally. I can’t live without them and neither could he. Halas needed his organs, even more than most men. He used them for his Bears decisions: his brain, his heart, and if you’ll excuse my anatomical crudity, his gut. He wanted to keep his Bears in his family the way I want to keep my heart in my chest. Sometimes that meant empowering people he liked. Sometimes it meant spurning people he loved. George Halas took his own counsel. It’s why he could be petty, yes, but it’s why he always won.

Halas hired a lot of ex-Bears, but that was never their sole qualification. There were, after all, a lot of ex-Bears. Hell, there were plenty in 1930, the first time Halas stepped away from his role as Bears head coach, when he tapped Lake Forest Academy coach Ralph Jones to run the show. Halas made Clark Shaughnessy his key offensive consultant in the 40s and his lead defensive assistant in the 50s. He raised George Allen from a pup. He brought Jim Finks from the Vikings to Chicago and gave him both kidneys and his liver, so to speak.

These men never donned a jock strap at Wrigley but Halas would not have amassed his hardware without them.

Of course, “Played for the Bears” was always a great resume builder for the Papa Bear. There was no better reference than his younger self. Suiting up for the Bears on Sundays carried the day for Hunk Anderson and Luke Johnsos when Halas left the team to re-enlist after Pearl Harbor. It carried the day for Paddy Driscoll when Halas retired after 1955 and for Jim Dooley when he retired again after 1967. After no winning seasons in four years, Halas replaced Dooley with Abe Gibson, who ended his 11-year pro career with two years playing for Halas. Finks took the lead on Jack Pardee and then brought in his old Vikings defensive coordinator Neill Armstrong.

In January of 1982, Halas had seen enough and needed no hiring committee to tell him so. He fired Armstrong without input from his general manager Finks.

“I feel somewhat pleased that Mr. Halas is taking a more active role in his team,” safety Gary Fencik said after Armstrong was fired. “Someone had to make a move.”

The word was out that the Cowboys assistant Ditka, a star on what was then the last Bears champ, was Halas’s #1 choice. “In terms of character and background, I can’t think of a better candidate,” Fencik said. Two weeks later, Halas pulled the trigger. It was a gut move, but also one from the brain: meathead and egghead. Halas had traded Ditka in a feud 15 years earlier but brought him back anyhow. The “He played with the Bears” factor balanced perilously by the “He throws nickels around like they were manhole covers” factor. Halas listened to himself and made the decision that best suited the Bears.

That’s what a Harbaugh hiring would be right now.

An improvisational star for the Bears and Colts, Harbaugh has gotten great results from mobile quarterbacks. He was Rich Gannon’s quarterbacks coach on the Raiders in 2002 when Gannon won league MVP and led Oakland to the Super Bowl; Gannon wasn’t a runner but you couldn’t let him out of the pocket. As head coach of the 49ers, Harbaugh helped Alex Smith revitalize his career and reached a Super Bowl with first-year starter Colin Kaepernick. Like Halas and Ditka, Harbaugh followed his organs in San Francisco, choosing the dynamic but raw Kaepernick in 2012 over the experienced Smith who was coming back from an injury.

Harbaugh’s offensive coordinator in San Francisco was Greg Roman, who began his NFL coaching career as a defensive assistant for the expansion Carolina Panthers, where he was tasked with attempting to slow one of the greatest dual-threat quarterbacks in the history of the NFL: Steve Young.

“We were trying to cover Jerry Rice, J.J. Stokes and Terrell Owens, and we’d get them covered and then Steve just tucks the ball in and runs for fifteen yards,” Roman told author John Eisenberg for his 2023 book Rocket Men about the history of Black quarterbacks. “It just breaks your spirit.”

Roman most recently served as offensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens under John Harbaugh, coaching Lamar Jackson in his MVP year. Roman, you might have heard, is unemployed.

A Harbaugh-Roman pairing in Chicago could get the most out of Justin Fields, or serve as a great landing spot for Caleb Williams. Our own Sam Householder thinks Justin could learn a thing or two from Steve Young, and Harbaugh and Roman would be the perfect conduit to that Hall of Famer.

Another reason I like Harbaugh: he only has one NFL coaching stint, and it did not yield a championship. But he came damn close, losing Super Bowl XLVII in heartbreaking fashion, and to his own brother of all people, who in a month might be hoisting his second Lombardi trophy. In 2017 I studied head coaches who reach the Super Bowl and found that a big number of them are like Harbaugh right now, coaches who had one NFL head coaching gig without a championship and who might be willing to name a few tweaks to get there.

Of course Harbaugh isn’t a slam dunk, nor is he the only option. NFL lifer, ex-Bears scout and Windy City Gridiron writer Greg Gabriel is not on board with Harbaugh. And I am still interested in Eric Bieniemy, Byron Leftwich, Dave Toub, Raheem Morris and my personal curiosity, Harold Goodwin. If Ryan Poles fires Matt Eberflus (and good golly, what’s taking so long!), he could make any number of hires that could work out.

All I ask is that in 2024, our beloved Bears start realizing just how special we are, not just in the past but in the present. We have a roster on the rise, the #1 and #9 picks, one of the best wide receivers in the game, two Pro Bowl defenders and a defense loaded with up-and-coming talent. A new head coach is walking into a job where Ryan Poles will either trade Justin Fields and build around a rookie QB with the #1 pick or trade the #1 pick and build around Justin Fields.

We don’t have to hire Jim Harbaugh just because he played for the Bears.

George Halas would have plenty of other reasons to hire him, too.




Jack M Silverstein is Chicago’s sports historian, Bears historian at Windy City Gridiron, a Pro Football Hall of Fame analyst with the Not In the Hall of Fame Committee, a contributor to PFHOF voter Clark Judge’s regular “Judge & Jury” series and author of the forthcoming “6 Rings: The Bulls, The City, and the Dynasty that Changed the Game.” His newsletter, “A Shot on Ehlo,” brings readers inside the making of the book, with original interviews, research and essays. Sign up now, and say hey at @readjack.