Wojo: SEC's response to Harbaugh is pretty darn comical

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Jim Harbaugh

While conference commissioners spent the past three days huffing and harrumphing about Jim Harbaugh, he was playing golf at Pebble Beach. It’s unclear if he was trying to goad the Pac-12 into banning outside coaches from California courses, but I wouldn’t doubt it.

What’s next? That’s always the question with Harbaugh, who keeps tormenting the haughty and hypocritical, and they keep gobbling the bait. First, it was Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey complaining about Harbaugh’s upcoming spring practice trip to Florida and demanding the NCAA do something to stop it. Then it was Atlantic Coast commissioner John Swofford jumping in, saying the trip is “a huge intrusion on a college student’s life.”

They suggest Michigan is denying players their freedom by taking them to the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, and conducting four practices there. They say the demands on players’ time is a constant concern in college football, and spring break has been considered off limits.

This literally might be the lamest, funniest fake argument ever proffered. The issue of demands on athletes? That’s real, and it’s why the NCAA adopted a 20-hours-a-week rule years ago, which I’m sure is strictly followed by every program in the country.

That’s not the issue here and everyone knows it. Michigan still will be limited to 15 practices, and by going to Florida earlier, will create off-days for players during semester finals. Here’s the issue: The SEC is worried its overwhelming recruiting advantage is being violated. The conference long has been boosted by geography — warm weather, a rich talent base and recruiting loopholes have contributed to winning eight of the past 10 national titles.

So, Harbaugh is doing what seemed impossible — he’s moving his program’s geography several times a year, including last summer’s satellite camps. For the SEC to mutter that someone else is gaining an unfair recruiting edge is hysterical.

SEC: No trespassing

Listen, I don’t wholeheartedly endorse everything Harbaugh does. He has pushed boundaries, such as pulling scholarship offers when a better recruit becomes available, and that makes some people uncomfortable.

But this move is brilliant. I don’t know if Harbaugh can consistently beat the SEC at its own game (41-7 over Florida is a start), but he certainly knows how to play it. This is what he was hired to do — reinvigorate Michigan football and compete at the national level. And if you’ve noticed, the commissioners are the ones shouting, not the coaches. You think Nick Saban, Les Miles, Hugh Freeze and others really want a frank and open discussion about recruiting tactics? You think Mississippi, recently cited for NCAA violations, wants to challenge what others do?

Think about it. Maybe this is Harbaugh’s way of flushing out the SEC’s imbedded advantages. If they push this, won’t it invite scrutiny of their own methods, such as over-signing, beyond the oh-so-important debate on the sanctity of spring break?

SEC boss doubles-down in battle vs. Harbaugh plan

Harbaugh’s plan also could have an implausible effect — bringing the Big Ten together in a renewed battle with the SEC. Mark Dantonio called Michigan’s spring trip “creative” and said he might consider doing the same. If that doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, nothing will.

We already know Urban Meyer plays the game extremely well, with the additional benefit of his own talent pile in Ohio. Not every program can afford spring training and satellite camps, but it’s amazing how the SEC and ACC (hi, Florida State!) seemingly have no problem with financial or recruiting inequities until square-jawed Midwest coaches start tromping onto their turf.

Yes, the IMG Academy is home to highly touted recruits, and Harbaugh absolutely wants to tap in. For one week, those players might hear a lot about Michigan. And for 51 other weeks, they’ll hear about Florida, Florida State, Alabama, Georgia, Auburn, LSU and Miami. Geography is great when it works for you.

Michigan’s recent top-four recruiting class cast a wide net, with nine players from Florida, Alabama and Georgia. The Southern push is indisputable, and if you want to win national titles, it’s unavoidable. For all Michigan State’s success, it didn’t have the depth of talent to match up with Alabama.

Gaining advantages

When Harbaugh arrived a year ago, there were two powers in the Big Ten — Ohio State and Michigan State. In his first season, he coached a thin roster to a 10-3 record. How thin was it? Ohio State has 14 players invited to the NFL combine. Michigan State has seven. Michigan has two.

Harbaugh knows he can’t hop aboard a magical Jake Rudock ride every year, so he recruits relentlessly, even ruthlessly. Some of his methods are quirky, such as the recruiting sleepovers. Some nudge closer to the imaginary line, such as the revocable nature of his scholarship offers and the hiring of people with ties to top recruits.

There are lines Harbaugh can’t cross, or this discussion changes. But state lines aren’t among them. “In my America, you’re allowed to cross state borders,” Harbaugh often says with a smile, although he isn’t joking.

Dantonio calls Harbaugh's spring break trip �creative�

In Harbaugh’s America, any opportunity to gain attention, which could gain recruits, which could gain victories and championships, is worth trying. Taking his team from frigid Michigan to sunny Florida at the end of February would seem to appeal to current players (who may not be able to afford a spring-break trip) and future players.

His methods are sometimes silly and always strategic. After Sankey told CBS Sports, “Let’s draw a line and say (spring break practice) is not appropriate,” Harbaugh responded on Twitter with this: “Question of the day: Does anyone find whining to be attractive? Just curious.”

Whether it’s whining or worrying, it’s unseemly coming from the SEC. Sankey and Swofford are exploiting a worthy cause to make a flawed argument. Maybe this sparks a discussion that leads to new rules, or maybe it’s shrugged off. Or maybe Alabama and Florida pack up and spend their sacred spring break in Detroit.

What’s next? Most likely, Harbaugh will keep teeing it up to see who’s willing to play, and by which rules.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

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