Wojo: Harbaugh snuffs jive turkey talk with a purpose

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Jim Harbaugh

Livonia — In the colloquial sense, in the recruiting nonsense, the jive talk has just begun. If you follow college football, you should be used to it by now. In case you weren’t, Jim Harbaugh offered a clarification that lacked full clarity, but served its purpose.

Harbaugh is not going to the Rams, or any NFL team, not anytime soon. But that’s not what his latest cryptic message was about, delivered with humor and bite near the end of Michigan’s Football Bust on Tuesday night. He scoffed at a report that was so flimsy and overblown, it didn’t even rise to the level of lazy rumor.

“I’m not leaving Michigan, not even considering it,” Harbaugh said at the Laurel Park Manor in Livonia, as the audience cheered.

And then, with nary a pause, he identified the real culprits in his mind.

“A lot of this talk is coming from our enemies, from coaches,” Harbaugh said. “You probably know the names of the top three I’m referring to. They like to say that to the media. They like to tell that to recruits and their families and try to manipulate them into going to some other school besides Michigan. We know them as jive turkeys.”

Don’t worry, I’ll get to the translation shortly, when we try to guess the three jive-talking coaches. But this was not a throwaway ode to “Sanford and Son,” or the movie “Tropic Thunder.” This was not just Harbaugh paranoia, although most coaches whose futures are tied to 17-year-olds possess a healthy dose of it.

And no, this is not just about the Rams or any NFL job. Whenever there’s an opening, Harbaugh’s name will be thrown on the wish list, and I assume you already understood that. He’s the only college coach who has gone to three NFC Championship games and a Super Bowl, and like anyone with a well-nourished ego, he probably doesn’t mind the attention.

But this is about recruiting — duh, I know — and Michigan is in the midst of a crucial stretch that could push its class into the top five nationally. Cass Tech star Donovan Peoples-Jones is scheduled to make his announcement Thursday night, and you can bet he wanted to know if the rumors were real. Michigan is pushing hard for the No. 1 player in the country, running back Najee Harris, an Alabama commit who surely is trying to sift through the recruiting jive. On Wednesday, Michigan gained a top recruit — receiver Tarik Black — and lost one —running back A.J. Dillon, who switched to Boston College.

Speculation cycle

Rather than deride the speculation cycle, consider this: Harbaugh’s feisty response is another clue as to why many NFL types misread him, first insisting he’d never leave the 49ers, then insisting he’ll be back in the NFL. And he might, eventually, although there’s no evidence it’s going to happen in the near future.

By all accounts, he loves raising his family in Ann Arbor, where he can live next to his parents, coach at his alma mater and tout the tenets of his mentor, Bo Schembechler. I’d say Michigan fans shouldn’t start worrying for several more years — you know, not until after he beats Ohio State for the first time, or wins the Big Ten, or goes to the playoff.

Four-star receiver Tarik Black commits to Michigan

The very thing some suggest would drive Harbaugh out of college football — the vicious recruiting game — actually is the type of competition that drives him to stay. It’s a common miscalculation by people such as Fox Sports’ Colin Cowherd, who took an off-handed, off-air reference by SI.com reporter Albert Breer that the Rams’ pursuit of Harbaugh was “very real,” and turned it into a hot debate topic. To Harbaugh’s credit, he didn’t take the cheap route and rip the media. He took the rugged route and ripped his peers.

Recruiting allows Harbaugh to feed his rabid competitiveness, and also, in a way, to reveal his unique personality in full. It’s why he challenged NCAA rules and SEC boundaries and held satellite camps all across the globe. It’s why he spent a night at a recruit’s house, and climbed a tree at another’s.

I don’t know if he revels in recruiting, but he revels in finding new ways to win something. The NFL is stark and antiseptic and some coaches like that, not forced to woo teenagers or wonder if they’re tucked into the dorm at night. You’re given a salary cap and a draft to pluck players, and it has little to do with creativity and intangibles.

In the NFL, you get a minimum of 16 chances for a big win. In college you get a minimum of 12 chances on the field and nearly 30 off the field, with recruiting successes embraced as fervently by some as the games themselves.

Message delivered

That’s why Harbaugh delivered his message Tuesday night, pointed directly at adversaries, whether he has evidence of meddling or not. To be frank, practically everyone negatively recruits, using whatever angle they can. Because Harbaugh’s name pops up for NFL openings, it’s a handy tactic, and I’m sure he understands it.

He just wanted to remind everyone how the game is played, fair or fowl. Would we have preferred to hear the names of his Jive Turkey Trio? Of course! But at least we could go to the Urban Dictionary for the meaning of jive turkey, which reads, in part, “One who speaks as though they know what they’re talking about … a BSer.”

Well, that hardly narrows the list of coaches, renowned BSers. But, hmm, it did come from the “Urban” Dictionary, and Harbaugh is battling Urban Meyer for top recruits. Same with Nick Saban. And Mark Dantonio recently ruled the state. And Penn State’s James Franklin has made an impact.

Wherever you look in college football, you see fierce competition. Everywhere Harbaugh looks, he sees enemies. In his mind, there is no difference, part of an invigorating game that never ends.