This entire thing isn’t really that complicated: Jim Harbaugh is telling recruits that he’s possibly entertaining NFL deals because, well, he is doing exactly that. One year ago, his salary was chopped in half via some flimsy “extension” and now that he’s fresh off an appearance in the College Football Playoff and a historical season in Ann Arbor, he’s being eyed for coaching vacancies.

Same story, different year.

Well, with exception to the historical season. The 2021 season was the first one of its kind during Harbaugh’s coaching tenure. Win over Ohio State, Big Ten championship — all that’s taken 7 years to finally accomplish. But, against all odds, he did it — almost like an “I told you so” to the university that really questioned the direction of the program following a 2-4 finish in 2020.

But even so, he was mentioned for vacancies back then, too.

Yes, this year is a little different, only because he’s openly telling recruits that he could be looking for another position. The NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders and Chicago Bears have been mentioned during the past few days, with the speculation stemming from an article by Bruce Feldman of The Athletic.

The time would never be better, right? Harbaugh’s stock hasn’t been this high since he coached the San Francisco 49ers to Super Bowl XLVII, almost 9 years ago to the day of this writing. He took over Michigan and restored some dignity. He started something special, or so it was said after the No. 2 Wolverines’ 34-11 Orange Bowl loss to No. 3 Georgia.

“This is just the beginning,” he proclaimed. His players repeated those very words.

So, pay up, Michigan.

The car is started. It’s all gassed and ready. It just needs a driver.

And if that driver isn’t Jim Harbaugh, UM will set its football program back at least a decade.

Why?

Let’s start with the obvious: By not re-negotiating Harbaugh’s deal and diving deeper into the NIL landscape — because that’s what he wants, and that’s what will decide the future of major programs — the Wolverines will basically be telling players that they don’t care about the modern times. The UM tradition should be enough … blah, blah, blah … academics … sure …

Make no mistake, Harbaugh cares deeply about academics. The standards at Michigan are incredibly high. But major college football isn’t just about the good-old college try and maintaining good grades, it’s about attracting the best talent and having the ability to offer what other schools can’t offer.

Back in the day, Michigan’s prestige and dominance of the Big Ten was enough. But college football grew up, and the Big Ten was no longer the main attraction. All of the sudden, things changed. And as things changed, Michigan fell behind.

Harbaugh reinstated credibility. His presence attracted one of the largest athletic brands in the world, Jordan, and his attitude began luring in top players. Back in 2015, Michigan and Jordan signed a 9-year deal. You think that’ll get extended without Harbaugh in the mix? Probably not.

Do you think that the nation’s top recruits, especially given NIL opportunities, will look at Michigan if Harbaugh were to leave? Some would still take a look, sure; but the absence of a big-name coach would certainly hurt recruiting. Harbaugh’s departure could also cause current players to enter the transfer portal. Some say they commit to the school, and school only, but they’re really committing to a coach who’s supposed to remain at the school.

That’s the reality, right? Let’s be honest.

If Harbaugh bounces from Ann Arbor, it’d almost be naive to think that up-and-coming star QB JJ McCarthy would stick around. Last year, McCarthy said he committed to UM and would stay true to his pledge, even if Harbaugh left for another job. That was last year, though. McCarthy has one year of experience with Harbaugh’s system and is expected to take over the offense, possibly as early as 2022.

But what if another coach enters the fold? Brings his own staff, gets some of his former players from his previous stop … then recruiting gets all complicated. Next thing, Harbaugh-recruited players would probably be looking over their shoulders, hoping they’re not disposable during the change of regime.

That was the mentality of players when UM went from Lloyd Carr to Rich Rodriguez, and from Rodriguez to Brady Hoke, and from Hoke to Harbaugh. It’s natural. When a head coach leaves, all bets are off and any past understandings or agreements become null and void.

If Harbaugh left, Michigan would be desperate to fill that void with a capable suitor … but name a better free-agent coach. The best coach on the market would be Harbaugh.

Maybe this is all for leverage? In which case, good for Harbaugh. He deserves to be paid. James Franklin just got a 10-year, guaranteed $70 million from Penn State, while Mel Tucker — in just his second year — got a 10-year deal worth up to $95 million. In terms of base salary, Harbaugh made half of that in 2021, which was undoubtedly one of the greatest seasons in Wolverines history.

Now Michigan wants to play games? Like it or not, the market value has been established. If UM can’t pay Harbaugh like Tucker and Franklin, then it better be prepared to have performances like it did under Hoke and Rodriguez.