If you’ve been in the business of covering college football long enough, you come to learn when the writing on the wall is a Banksy and when it’s a forgery.

When Bruce Feldman of The Athletic says something, it’s a Banksy. If there’s smoke in the air about Jim Harbaugh wanting to return to the NFL, there’s a real fire connected.

Reports like this are typically to be taken with a grain of salt. Or even the entire shaker. When Lincoln Riley left Oklahoma for USC, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported the Sooners were targeting Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury as Riley’s replacement.

This, of course, was preposterous and an obvious plant from Kingsbury’s agent. The Cardinals are a Super Bowl contender and Kingsbury is due for a contract extension. The internet basically laughed Schefter’s tweet into oblivion.

But in this case, there’s seemingly little motive for Harbaugh to make a leverage play.

It’s not about the money

A year ago, Harbaugh agreed to halve his pay in order to keep his job.

And though he earned bonuses for winning the Big Ten East, the Big Ten championship game and reaching the College Football Playoff, Harbaugh isn’t keeping any of that money, either. All of his bonus money is being donated to fellow Michigan athletic department employees who had their salaries cut due to COVID-related budget cuts in 2020.

If he’s angling for a raise, Harbaugh has a funny way of showing it.

Which brings us to the truth of the matter: Harbaugh wants to return to the NFL. Or at the very least, he’s mulling it over. Perhaps he thinks 2021 was his Michigan ceiling.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean a change will happen this year.

Feldman reports that there are 2 teams on Harbaugh’s radar: the Raiders and Bears. And there’s no guarantee the Las Vegas job will even be available.

Raiders interim coach Rich Bisaccia has done a remarkable job keeping Vegas in the playoff race in a tumultuous season where the team fired Jon Gruden and lost star receiver Henry Ruggs to an arrest for vehicular homicide. Raiders owner Mark Davis is a strange man with strange hair, but surely he’d remove Biasaccia’s interim tag if Vegas makes the playoffs.

Either way, we’ll know the outcome in a week.

The Bears are an intriguing possibility. Harbaugh is a former Chicago quarterback, and he would link up with former Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields at the next level. That alone should guarantee the Bears a season on Hard Knocks. But there’s little guarantee Chicago’s front office wouldn’t find a way to bungle the situation before getting Harbaugh to Halas Hall.

It’s happened before.

But for the sake of this exercise, let’s say Harbaugh does end up coaching either the Raiders or Bears in 2022.

What’s Michigan’s move?

Re-spin the coaching carousel

Just when we thought we were in the clear, the coaching carousel could get another whirl this offseason.

Wiseass Michigan State fans are likely to remind their Michigan friends that if former University of San Diego coach Jim Harbaugh could work in Ann Arbor, there’s no reason current San Diego State coach Brady Hoke can’t do the same thing.

But back to being serious.

There are 2 clear candidates in the Midwest who were expected to land somewhere larger this year but appear to be staying put for the time being: Iowa State’s Matt Campbell and Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell.

Campbell has been very selective about leaving Ames, but Michigan would surely be one of the few jobs to perk his ears. The Ohio native previously coached at Toledo — in essence, the city where Ohio and Michigan had a child — and would make a natural fit.

Fickell’s bona fides are pretty obvious at this point after guiding the Bearcats to a CFP berth. He does not appear inclined to leave Cincy any time before the Bearcats officially join the Big 12, but Michigan makes money talk like few other programs.

Former Florida coach Jim McElwain, currently exiled at Central Michigan, would surely do backflips from Mount Pleasant to Ann Arbor to throw his hat in the ring.

Michigan won’t be at that level of desperation, though. Indeed, the right answer may the same as it was when the Wolverines replaced Bo Schembechler and Gary Moeller — already in the building.

If Jim Harbaugh leaves, Josh Gattis looks ready

By all accounts, the secret to Michigan’s success in 2021 was the new-look coaching staff Harbaugh assembled. Michigan’s concern shouldn’t be in losing Harbaugh, but the guys he surrounded himself with.

The best way to keep that staff as intact as possible is to promote from within. And that means offensive coordinator Josh Gattis should be athletic director Warde Manuel’s first interview.

Gattis won the Broyles Award as the top assistant coach in the country this year. He interviewed for the Virginia job, which ultimately went to Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott.

Clearly, entrusting a 37-year-old who has never served as a head coach would require a leap of faith. But it might be the right time for making such a leap.

In many ways, Michigan has long felt like Notre Dame’s secular sister school. The programs have similar profiles, the same backyard and an emphasis on balancing wins with high academic standards. And the Fighting Irish elected to entrust their future to 35-year-old defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman when Brian Kelly bolted for LSU.

What’s good enough for Notre Dame, in theory, should be good enough for Michigan. And even if he departs for the NFL, leaving Michigan in better shape than he found it is something that obviously matters to Harbaugh. If he recommends that Gattis be promoted in his absence, it will happen.

Regardless of how Harbaugh’s NFL flirtation plays out, Michigan will be just fine.