Panthers have spoken with Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh about head-coaching position

The Panthers’ search for a new head coach won’t begin in earnest until after Sunday’s season finale, but the team has already begun the process of reaching out to potential candidates. As first reported by FOX Charlotte, Carolina owner David Tepper had a conversation with Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh about his head coaching vacancy.

That may or may not lead to a formal interview, but it suggests the Panthers will be actively evaluating their outside options. That’s even as interim coach Steve Wilks led the team from a 1-4 start to contend for a division title, going 5-5 before being eliminated in a loss to the Bucs on Sunday .

Wilks could still shed the interim tag and earn the full-time job, but Tuesday’s news shows Tepper may be looking more for a big-name hire.

Carolina is one of at least three NFL teams that will hire a new coach this offseason, and that number could grow significantly in the coming weeks. The Panthers fired Matt Rhule in October after just five games, and the Colts have done the same with Frank Reich, as have the Broncos with Nathaniel Hackett. Other teams could follow suit as their seasons end next week, or if the postseason doesn’t last as long for some teams with high expectations.

[Related: After duplicate result, Michigan must search for what’s missing]

In Harbaugh, the Panthers would potentially add one of the most outstanding coaches of this coaching cycle, with a rare combination of success at the college and NFL levels. He has spent the past eight seasons at Michigan, going 74-25, and is 25-3 with back-to-back Big Ten titles over the past two years, including his current team’s undefeated until Saturday’s upset loss by 51-45 against TCU. in the national semifinals.

Harbaugh, 59, had success in four years as the 49ers’ head coach from 2011 to 2014, losing twice in the NFC Championship Game and losing to the Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII, with a record of 44-19-1. He played 14 seasons in the NFL from 1987-2000, earning a nod to the Pro Bowl and finishing with 129 touchdowns against 117 interceptions. He’s in the Colts’ Ring of Honor despite only playing four seasons, so his name has also been linked to his vacancy.

Carolina’s resurgence under Wilks could make them one of the most attractive jobs available this offseason: The Panthers will have a top-10 draft pick and a promising young defense, led by Pro Bowl running back Brian Burns. The team is in no position to lose key players in free agency and can make moves to create more salary cap flexibility, though they will need to identify a starting quarterback, with current starter Sam Darnold soon to be a free agent

Harbaugh has been successful at Michigan, but speculation is he’s ready to return to the NFL ranks this spring, with a low $3 million buyout and a college landscape complicated by the arrival of name dynamics , image and likeness. He spoke with the Vikings last year but ultimately wasn’t offered the job, which went to Kevin O’Connell. His brother John has been Baltimore’s head coach since 2008, making him the third longest tenured head coach in the NFL behind only New England’s Bill Belichick and Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin.

In theory, Harbaugh could assemble key parts of his 49ers staff for any NFL job: Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio was out of the league this season after being fired as Denver’s head coach, and offensive coordinator Greg Roman might be available if he isn’t. carried by crows.

Tepper has owned the Panthers since 2018 and has another chance to raise the team’s profile with a big signing, after losing Rhule three years ago. The former Temple and Baylor coach won just five games in each of his first two seasons and was 1-4 when he was fired in October. He is now the head coach at Nebraska.

Carolina has a 6-10 record heading into Sunday’s season finale in New Orleans, but it was only recently that they had won their last two games Sunday with a chance at an unlikely division title. They led Tampa Bay 14-0 and won 21-10 in the fourth quarter before Tom Brady rallied the Bucs to a 30-24 victory, clinching the NFC South title and eliminating the Panthers from playoff contention.

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Greg Auman is the NFC South reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

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