Finebaum: Harbaugh winning in face of criticism

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh truly is fascinating and a game-changer, says ESPN Radio host Paul Finebaum.

When national radio host Paul Finebaum recently called Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh “the Donald Trump of college football,” headlines writers across the country rejoiced, associating two news and social media lightning rods.

Finebaum is the deeply entrenched-in-the-south radio voice who some in these parts -- and, well, parts around the country that aren’t in the southeast -- describe as an SEC apologist and cheerleader.

But Finebaum told The Detroit News he truly finds Harbaugh fascinating and a game-changer in college football.

In recent weeks Harbaugh has been criticized by the SEC and ACC commissioners and, most recently, Georgia coach Kirby Smart, for his plan to take the Wolverines to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., for a week of spring practice beginning Monday. Finebaum, whose daily four-hour show is on ESPN Radio, has said SEC coaches and administrators are only feeding the Harbaugh machine by openly attacking it.

He likened Harbaugh to Trump in the sense both, for a variety of reasons, move the needle and generate conversation while both appearing unfazed and almost emboldened by criticism.

“I meant that as a complete and total compliment,” Finebaum told The News Wednesday of the Trump-Harbaugh comparison. “Some took it differently. My point being, here’s a guy, no matter what you say about him or throw at him, he wins. It just doesn’t matter.

“I find that to be amusing. I’ve been following (Harbaugh) like everyone since the beginning. Here I am at the epicenter of the SEC, but it has continued to amaze me and bewilder me why everyone -- and when I say everyone, I mean a lot of the coaches and administrators and fans -- get so upset by everything Harbaugh says. It’s not my job to speak from a pulpit. I’m a talk-show host, but I just think, ‘Coaches, quit letting him win.’”

Harbaugh and the SEC have been at odds since last summer, when he launched his “Swarm Tour” of satellite camps around the country. Coaches from the SEC and ACC have to abide by conference rules that do not allow them to work at camps outside of a 50-mile radius of their schools. The Big Ten does not have that rule.

More recently, Harbaugh’s decision to head south for a week of spring practice during the school’s official spring break has ruffled feathers. Harbaugh has insisted that not only will they practice four times, but they have several non-football-related activities planned, and this will allow them to later take two weeks off without football for final exams.

“It’s creative,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said in a Sirius XM interview regarding Harbaugh’s plan. “It’s kind of like, ‘We’re going to take you on vacation, but you’ve got to practice while we’re on vacation.’”

Behind the curtain

Greg Sankey, the SEC commissioner, was first to go public about his issues with this plan and said it undermines what the NCAA should be addressing in terms of more free time for student-athletes away from their sports. He went to the NCAA to see if Harbaugh’s plans could be stopped this spring.

Harbaugh then seemed to take a shot at Sankey on Twitter: “Question of the day: Does anyone find whining attractive? Just curious.”

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To which Sankey responded in an story, saying he would not “reduce what is an important conversation to some childhood use of Twitter.”

Finebaum said participating in a Twitter fight with Harbaugh probably wasn’t Sankey’s best move and said their debate should be taken to the NCAA convention. Otherwise, he’s enjoying being on the sideline watching all of this unfold and then discussing it on his show.

“It goes back to my youth when I watched the Wizard of Oz,” Finebaum said. “To me, Harbaugh is behind the curtain, and it’s been fascinating and he’s brilliant at it. I don’t know him enough, I don’t know him at all, to think he’s laughing all the way to the bank and maybe all the way to the national championship game. If the SEC coaches had simply ignored him, I don’t think his reputation or aura would be what it is right now.”

He does think Sankey genuinely is concerned from the legislative standpoint regarding student-athletes and their time issues. Clearly, though, in his opinion, being critical of Harbaugh does little.

“You’re not going to hurt Jim Harbaugh by throwing stones at him,” Finebaum said. “He’s going to get the last laugh. He’s on Twitter, and he’s having fun with it. The guy has a sense of humor and most coaches do not. Most are difficult, if not tedious.

“Let me make it clear – I’m not attacking him. I’m praising him. I was on SportsCenter after Signing Day, I was praising him, and the anchor said, ‘You’ve become the biggest Harbaugh sycophant in the south.’ I’ve done this a long time. I’ve heard all of the coachspeak I can possibly listen to. I genuinely believe he’s one of the brightest figures to come down the pike in a while, and he’s a breath of fresh air and there aren’t many of them out there.

“I have great admiration for Nick Saban and know him well and spent weeks with him last year for “Outside the Lines,” but he’s not really a funny guy. I don’t see Nick Saban going on Jon Stewart and cracking jokes, but I think Harbaugh could go on and have a lot of laughs.”

While Finebaum is most closely associated with coverage of the SEC, his shows have, at times, been dominated by Harbaugh talk because of the satellite camps and Florida spring practice, not to mention his elaborate Signing Day show featuring a number of celebrities like Tom Brady and Derek Jeter, and his numerous other activities, such as attending wrestling in Detroit earlier this week, going to the State of the Union and making the rounds of the national radio shows during Super Bowl weekend.

“When we talk about him, it’s nonstop,” Finebaum said. “It’s pretty universal the dislike for him.”

Shadow over Urban Meyer

Finebaum mentioned how Saban started using Skype to recruit players and was at the forefront texting recruits. Harbaugh is now exploring the grey areas of the rulebook, because, why not?

“Every coach tries to find an edge,” Finebaum said. “Every coach that is a national power is not obliterating the speed limit, but they’re going as fast as they can until they look back and see a police car and slow down. Everyone is going fast to win. You can’t win by following the leader.

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“What I really like about this is Harbaugh has, in some ways, made (Ohio State coach) Urban Meyer irrelevant. A year ago, Urban Meyer was all people talked about – ‘Urban Meyer is the best coach in the country now. He beat Nick Saban. He’s going to win eight national championships.’ What’s remarkable is Harbaugh did this by losing badly to Urban Meyer, but he still managed to steal the spotlight and use all the oxygen in the Midwest. I’m not saying Urban Meyer doesn’t matter, but he lost one game on a last play and won a bowl game against Notre Dame and it seems like a miserable season, and Harbaugh wins a bowl game and has a great season.

“Saban creates that kind of buzz. He’s won five national championships. But for a guy without a title, Jim’s doing pretty well.”

Paul Finebaum

Finebaum said he has fielded plenty of calls from SEC fans complaining in recent weeks about Harbaugh. Generally, they believe the spring trip is ridiculous.

“It’s worth it (for Harbaugh) in the publicity,” Finebaum said. “It’s just the fact he’s wining, he’s beating the odds. Back to Trump, here’s a billionaire elitist probably moderate-to-liberal-guy who lives on Fifth Avenue going to South Carolina winning the evangelical vote. Figure that one out. And here’s Harbaugh coming into the south. His credibility would be less if he had not signed the top player in the country (Rashan Gary). Otherwise, some would say, ‘Is it really working?’ Yeah, it’s working. He got the top player in the country.

“But at some point you have to beat Urban Meyer and get to a national playoff. Eventually is he has to win.”

When does Finebaum think Harbaugh will have Michigan in the national playoff?

“This year. I really believe it,” he said. “Color me crazy. This year is about Michigan.”

Michigan is leaving Sunday for Florida. Feinbaum jokingly said he wouldn’t be surprised if he sees Harbaugh walking on the Academy Awards stage that night in Los Angeles while host Chris Rock opens the show.

“I think that’s the genius of what he’s doing,” Finebaum said. “He’s brought a conversation to people that are fairly bored this time of year. At some point we will turn the calendar and there will be three weeks of college basketball that will dominate the news.

“Watching television this morning, the pundits were asking, Can anyone stop Trump?’ It’s Jim Harbaugh. The Michigan primary is coming.”