Jim Harbaugh is doing what he does, testing the boundaries of convention. He’s either the brightest recruiting innovator in college football, or a ruthless game-player who will do whatever it takes to win. Or probably, both.
You don’t have to like it, but you have to understand it. While the commitments, decommitments and melodramatic shrieking continue right up until National Signing Day next Wednesday, be prepared for the hysteria and hypocrisy.
The truth is, this is what Michigan signed up for, justifiably so. It no longer can arrogantly say it does things way differently than Ohio State or Alabama, and that’s fine, as long as rules aren’t broken. The holier-than-them attitude made fans feel good, and they enjoyed sniffing at the undignified ways of Urban Meyer and Nick Saban, even as the Wolverines got their behinds bashed in.
Michigan had standards and still does, but it needed a boost of relentlessness, and Harbaugh is delivering in ways both impressive and unseemly. Some of Harbaugh’s recruiting tactics are uncomfortable, and I’m not talking about the tree-climbing and sleepovers and satellite camps. Those are calculated, harmless attempts to connect.
I’m talking about the juggling of verbal commitments, with four players exiting the 2016 class in the past week for various reasons. Harbaugh needs to do a better job organizing and not accepting every early commitment, and then communicating possible changes. But he also knows the brutal nature of competition, and this is the source of the controversy: He’s working it as hard as anyone, and doing it more publicly than coaches at Michigan have done in the past.
“You have to recognize the landscape has changed, the process has changed, tactics have changed,” Tom Luginbill, ESPN’s national recruiting director, said Tuesday. “Just because you’re Michigan, you can’t do it like you did five, 10, 15 years ago. If you do, you’re gonna be left behind. Harbaugh isn’t crossing a line. This is what he is — he’s quirky, he’s unique, and when I talk to kids, the most important reaction is, he’s authentic.”
But is all of it necessary?
“It’s open season, and the level of competition is so intense, you gotta be on your game at all times,” Luginbill said. “You want the Michigan way or you want to win big time? Because I guarantee you, if you start winning big time, it becomes the Michigan way.”
Method to madness
There’s a reason Harbaugh is the second-highest-paid coach in the country, a reason the Wolverines jumped to 10-3 and are compiling a top-five recruiting class. The methods bother some fans — inside and outside the program — and some media reflexively leap to the defense of the scorned kid.
And no, it’s never a good look when a program nudges aside long-committed players shortly before signing day. Two of them — Rashad Weaver and Erik Swenson — announced they no longer were welcomed by Harbaugh and his staff. Swenson committed two years ago to Brady Hoke, so Harbaugh had less of an attachment.
The “flipping” game is played craftily by coaches and players, so it’s not a one-way problem. That said, the adults bear more responsibility. Coaches aren’t allowed to comment on unsigned recruits, so one side of the story is yet to be told.
“This isn’t exclusive to Michigan or Jim Harbaugh,” Luginbill said. “It’s an unfortunate byproduct of recruiting becoming so accelerated, you’re forced to give offers to sophomores or juniors. It is the negative, darker side of recruiting. You have to make tough choices, and if you offer a kid you’re not sure you want to take, you have to deal with the ramifications.”
Swenson said he was forced out, which is unfortunate, but he’s a four-star offensive tackle with plenty of options. Weaver was a surprise commitment after one of Harbaugh’s satellite camps in Florida. He had offers from Air Force, Columbia, Illinois, Syracuse and Temple, so you could see why he’d jump at Michigan, and why it’s not a surprise Harbaugh found recruits he feels give him a better chance to win.
Weaver expressed his disappointment on Twitter Monday night, but followed up later with this: “Harbaugh is not garbage or trash like u guys are calling him. It’s his team and he knows what he is doing.” By Tuesday morning, Weaver happily announced he’d already landed six more offers.
Under Hoke, Michigan generally had its commitments locked up by the end of August. It was tactful and non-controversial, but there also was a sense of complacency and entitlement.
It’s a nasty game, and top programs can’t simply abstain. But Harbaugh has to be wary of perceptions and be more judicious in his offers. Oversigning is a common practice in the SEC and SEC North (Ohio State). It hasn’t been common at Michigan, and more roster attrition probably is coming. Harbaugh isn’t guaranteeing seniors a fifth year, and clearly isn’t guaranteeing all verbal commitments.
But again, the hypocrisy. If you lament Michigan’s inability to compete at the highest level — no Big Ten title since 2004, no national title since 1997 — then don’t wail when the program does what the big boys do.
Harbaugh is being branded by some as untrustworthy, with the notion it could hurt his recruiting going forward. The reality is, programs like Alabama and Ohio State haven’t been hurt, with their classes always ranked in the top five. They win national titles not by being loyal or nice, but by collecting as much talent as possible and forcing them to compete.
Target for his competition
Harbaugh’s tactics have become the biggest story of this recruiting season, and sniping at him has become the second-biggest story. And he’s fair game every time someone Tweets a photo of a sleepover, or every time a recruit questions what happened.
At Michigan State, Mark Dantonio operates differently and it works for him, although he’s willing to flip a recruit when the opportunity arises. He has 20 commitments, almost all landed months ago. Shortly after Weaver’s decommitment, this message was posted on Dantonio’s Twitter account: “The righteous shall prevail …” It was quickly deleted, then appeared on the timeline of Michigan State recruiting coordinator Curtis Blackwell.
That sure looks like a retort to Harbaugh, who’s a master at sending not-so-subtle messages. He was hired to restore luster to a damaged program and that’s what he’s done in his first year, using every possible path. He plugged holes with transfer quarterbacks — first Jake Rudock, now John O’Korn —and opened holes by suggesting players move on.
Blame the system if you must, but there are no easy fixes. An early signing period? Neither coaches nor players would necessarily benefit. Some recruits would eagerly lock up a spot, and others would sign early and be stuck if the coaching staff changed later.
Harbaugh is doing things his way, a new way for Michigan, a long-accepted way for others. In the process, he’s made himself a target, a role he doesn’t seem to mind. He plays it well, but must play it carefully.