Vikings narrow head coach candidate list, set Harbaugh interview

After flying to Los Angeles to interview Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell and defensive coordinator Raheem Morris on Monday, the Vikings cut their time on the West Coast short and headed home to interview two finalists in Minnesota.

The second of those two interviews might grab more headlines than any other in the 2022 coaching cycle.

According to sources with knowledge of the situation, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh will fly to Minnesota to interview with the Vikings on Wednesday – the day college teams show off their new recruiting classes on national signing day. Instead, Harbaugh will interview with the Vikings after an “exploratory conversation” on Saturday, as he considers a return to the NFL seven years after the 49ers fired him.

He went 44-19-1 in the regular season in his four years with the 49ers, taking San Francisco to three consecutive NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl (which he lost to a Ravens team coached by his brother John). He was the coach of the 49ers when Vikings General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah began working in San Francisco’s research department.

For as successful as Harbaugh was with the 49ers, the Vikings’ interest in him represents a gamble. The team’s ownership has talked at length about a collaborative culture after the tenures of Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman ended with tension in the organization, and the Vikings would be making a play for a high-profile coach whose first run in the NFL ended in a disagreement with the front office.

After the 2014 season, Harbaugh was let go after a rift with GM Trent Baalke. Almost immediately, he was hired by Michigan, which he led a Big Ten title and a trip to the College Football Playoff in 2021, a year after the school cut his pay in half as part of a four-year extension.

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Whispers about Harbaugh possibly returning to the NFL had bubbled up in recent weeks, and reports connecting him to the Dolphins – owner Stephen Ross is a prominent Michigan booster – sprung up after the Vikings’ first discussion with the coach on Saturday. Ross had said he would not be the person to pry Harbaugh away from Michigan, but he could make a play for the coach if the Vikings’ interest suggests his return to the NFL is imminent. Still, the Vikings seem in line to get the first interview with him.

It will come a day after Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham, who impressed the Vikings in a virtual interview on Saturday, has his second interview with the team on Tuesday.

The Vikings were supposed to talk to 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans in the Bay Area on Tuesday, but returned early from California after the 37-year-old Ryans pulled out of the search, choosing to stay with the NFC runners-up. Harbaugh’s presence in the race for the Vikings job might have also been a factor in Ryans’ decision to withdraw.

On Monday, at least, the Vikings were focused on the two coordinators from the NFC’s Super Bowl representative.

A Vikings contingent including Adofo-Mensah, Executive Vice President of Football Operations Rob Brzezinski and co-owner Mark Wilf boarded a plane bound for Southern California on Monday morning, for second interviews in the afternoon with O’Connell and Morris a day after they helped Los Angeles win the NFC Championship Game at SoFi Stadium.

The 36-year-old O’Connell also had a second interview with the Texans for their coaching job on Monday, and reportedly has interest from the Jaguars – though any conversations with Jacksonville would have to wait until after the Super Bowl. The Jaguars had not requested to talk with O’Connell during the league’s window for initial interviews with coaches from playoff teams.

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O’Connell was Washington quarterbacks coach in 2017, Kirk Cousins’ final season as the starter there, and would figure to run a similar system in Minnesota to the one the Vikings first installed with Kevin Stefanski and Gary Kubiak in 2019. O’Connell also worked with Adofo-Mensah in San Francisco in 2016, when he was on the 49ers staff doing special projects under Chip Kelly.

Morris, 45, went 17-31 as Buccaneers coach from 2009 to ’11, before taking over for the fired Dan Quinn as Atlanta’s interim coach in 2020 and going 4-7. He has coached both offense and defense in the NFL, and after he was one of the last coaches added to the Vikings’ initial round of interviews, he impressed the team enough to earn an in-person interview Monday.

Before the Vikings can hire a coach, they must conduct at least two in-person interviews with minority candidates. Meeting again with Morris and Graham, who are Black, would satisfy that requirement.

While the Vikings could reach a verbal agreement with either O’Connell or Morris this week, neither coach could start with the team until after the Rams play the Bengals in Super Bowl LVI on Feb. 13.

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