Jim Harbaugh is running up the score, which he’s prone to do, which is fine. Michigan needed some brashness and the NCAA needed some humility, so Harbaugh is piling on with satellite camps in 15 states and two countries, from Alabama to Australia to Austria (not yet).
Last year’s “Summer Swarm” has become a June Swoon, with approximately 36 camps in 29 days, including reported visits to American Samoa and Hawaii. It’s the dominant story of the college football offseason again, which is crazy. I mean, before Harbaugh arrived, most people assumed a satellite camp was a summer retreat to NASA.
But surely you know by now, this isn’t just about camps. It isn’t necessarily about giving kids more opportunities, although that’s a natural benefit. It isn’t even just about recruiting, although that’s obviously Harbaugh’s unstated intent.
This is about making a point, and Harbaugh’s unquenchable competitiveness requires him to make points every chance he gets. And by making such showy points, he’s also making enemies. I’m fairly certain this doesn’t bother him, and I’m positive he expected it. He courts confrontation with his Twitter attacks. He needs it. He feeds it.
Harbaugh’s intended consequence: make Michigan more visible, while forcing Southern programs to recruit on a slightly more-level field.
The unintended consequence: inviting more foxes into the barn.
Since swatting down the Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conferences two weeks ago when the NCAA Board of Directors overturned the disingenuous camp ban, Harbaugh essentially is spiking the football. Are 36 camps — counting seven in Ann Arbor — too many? From a logical standpoint, of course. In some cases, Michigan will participate in multiple camps in multiple states on the same day, requiring its staff to split. On June 3, the day of the Australia camp, Michigan has two others scheduled in Florida, so Harbaugh won’t be attending every one.
Some opposing coaches have gotten irritated and the battle has escalated. At Michigan State, Mark Dantonio fights the urge, probably because he’s confident his powerful program can cede attention without ceding control. The Spartans again will participate in the Sound Mind Sound Body Football Academy in Detroit June 9-10, and plan to make six national stops.
Other coaches who mocked or dismissed the idea have reluctantly joined the fray. Nick Saban, who once called satellite camps “ridiculous,” will send assistant Bobby Williams, the former Michigan State coach, to Detroit. Mississippi’s Hugh Freeze, who riled Harbaugh by saying he didn’t embrace satellite camps because they were an imposition on his family time, reportedly is lining up a few. Georgia’s Kirby Smart, who came under Twitter attack from Harbaugh after questioning Michigan’s Florida spring trip, will align with Michigan for a June 2 camp in Atlanta.
There’s also a nice little Summer Satellite Smackdown brewing in New Jersey, where Harbaugh grabbed five of the state’s top eight recruits last year, including the nation’s No. 1, Rashan Gary. New Rutgers coach Chris Ash, a former Urban Meyer assistant, aligned with Ohio State for a camp the same day as Michigan’s June 8 appearance in Paramus, N.J., where Harbaugh will be the commencement speaker.
That camp is scheduled to feature Harbaugh, Maryland’s D.J. Durkin (former Michigan defensive coordinator), Pittsburgh’s Pat Narduzzi (former Michigan State defensive coordinator) and Syracuse’s Dino Babers, an odd grouping indeed. At the same time, Ash, Meyer and Temple’s Matt Ruhle will host one 30 miles away.
New Jersey media outlets, giddy Rutgers actually drew some attention, fired up the hyperbole and jumped in, including one writer who called the Michigan camp “an act of war.” It all seems silly and defensive, but the stakes are real. New Jersey is fertile recruiting ground and Harbaugh knew it when he hired former Paramus Catholic coach Chris Partridge. Rutgers even adopted a “Fence the Garden” mantra — you know, put a fence around the Garden State to keep the players home. Great. Except, uh, they don’t think their buddy Meyer is coming for players, too?
The immediate upside for Harbaugh is, he thrusts Michigan football to the top of the national debate, fairly amazing considering Michigan was a non-factor for a decade. In the process, he’s making enemies in hot places, from SEC commissioner Greg Sankey to noted talk-show host Paul Finebaum, who recently said, “I think he has gone from the most entertaining person in college football to the most annoying.”
Harbaugh can handle the heat, and even the hate. But the more he does to inspire his own program, the more he inspires others to beat him. It’s an intriguing and somewhat amusing off-field competition, and it makes sense for Michigan, for now. When your profile has been so muddied, you lift it by any method possible, using all your vast resources.
Harbaugh has grown from a curiosity to a rapidly moving target in less than 18 months, with some publications pegging the Wolverines as high as No. 3 in the country this season. He’s like the new kid on the playground who demands to be noticed, then finds himself surrounded by neighborhood bullies. That’s OK, as long as Michigan continues the transformation from one-time weakling.
Always a reaction
Does it matter to other programs Harbaugh followed a clever strategy that also could benefit them? Probably not. The Sound Mind Sound Body camp is a tremendous event that draws the best coaches and exposes players to a wider audience. Run by Curtis Blackwell, who’s also director of college advancement at Michigan State, it was saved by the overturn of the camp ban.
Others might not see it that way. If Harbaugh hadn’t stirred such attention with his camp tour last summer, and then the trip to Florida, nobody sniffs about a rule change and SEC folks keep blissfully hoarding the local talent. Harbaugh alerted opponents, and while it’s celebrated here, it’s motivating elsewhere. Alabama staff will trek to Detroit, as will many others. Meyer, who first laid down the recruiting gauntlet when he arrived at Ohio State, is expected back.
Satellite camps don’t win championships and aren’t guaranteed to win recruits. But Michigan did clean up in New Jersey, and who knows, the Samoan connection could be fruitful with Michigan’s new director of player personnel Tony Tuioti.
When you run up the score, there can be consequences, and I suspect the NCAA will try again to limit the camps next summer. By then, perhaps Harbaugh will opt for something different. I’m sure he knows raising ire also raises stakes, and after winning the camp wars, he’ll have to prepare for much stronger foes.