Wojo: Saban frets while Harbaugh gets his way

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — It was all fun and satellite games at first, a way to fill time until the real games began. Jim Harbaugh kept jabbing, kept adding camps, kept smiling. And then he took a swing at the biggest bully on any block.

Oh, the reverberations! Oh, the ramifications!

By adding Alabama and Nick Saban to his dartboard, Harbaugh confirmed he doesn’t care about the size of the foe or the sharpness of the barb. And hey, there’s nothing wrong with drawing an angry reaction from the best coach in college football, a five-time national champ.

It’s just that, when Harbaugh arrived at Michigan, we figured he’d have enough trouble handling the biggest boys on his own block, Michigan State and Ohio State. Harbaugh versus Mark Dantonio, Harbaugh versus Urban Meyer, great clashes renewed.

So it might seem strange, even dangerous, to take on the SEC behemoths before you’ve beaten your own rivals. You do wonder how much Harbaugh can bite off and chew, as he and his staff are in the midst of their 40-stop, 22-state, two-nation camp tour, picking up friends and enemies along the way.

As long as Harbaugh has the energy and Michigan has the resources, there’s no downside. Not yet. Not in recruiting and not on the field, where Michigan’s recent matchup against an SEC team was a 41-7 victory over Florida in the Citrus Bowl.

Harbaugh has a plan and the crazy passion to pursue it. The question is, will he have the patience to put up with the scrutiny? When you call out possible rule-breakers, you’re required to keep your glass windows spotless. When you jab at Ohio State, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and others, you’d better be ready for the response, on the field and off.

Most of the sparring is amusing, riddled with humor and hypocrisy, and I doubt Harbaugh takes it as seriously as everyone else. Media and fans embrace it because it’s so rare in buttoned-up big-time sports. No one’s hyperventilating about satellite camps. People are hyperventilating about coaches hyperventilating about satellite camps.

Harbaugh’s Twitter volley at Saban wasn’t much different than his swipes at his “Rocky Top colleague,” Tennessee’s Butch Jones, or the “Georgia coach,” Kirby Smart, who oddly enough joined Harbaugh at a camp Thursday in Atlanta. The common theme — whether it’s right or merely righteous — is Harbaugh targeting alleged rule-violators.

“Alabama broke NCAA rules & now their HC is lecturing us on the possibility of rules being broken at camps,” Harbaugh wrote. “Truly ‘amazing.’”

This did not sit well down South, starting with rabid SEC commentator Paul Finebaum, who initially supported Harbaugh’s tactics.

“Now he has really become a cartoon character,” Finebaum said on his show. “And he attacked the wrong person. Nick Saban is sincere. He doesn’t need a recruiting advantage. Jim Harbaugh does.”

Harbaugh receives warm welcome at Indianapolis camp

The issue has been overblown because Harbaugh decided to overblow it and SEC coaches determined — out of concern or annoyance — they couldn’t ignore him. That’s somewhat amazing, considering Michigan was largely ignored for about a decade.

Harbaugh’s latest tussle could even be considered educational. For instance, who knew Saban was so vitally interested in controlling the “wild, wild west” (his words) of a recruiting world that he generally dominates? Of course he’s deeply, deeply concerned about the sanctity.

Coaching in the SEC, Saban knows the consequences well. Mississippi is embroiled in an investigation, and Alabama assistant coach Bo Davis resigned in April after illegal contact with a recruit. I’m sure the NCAA will seek to install stricter guidelines, and it should. The opportunity for misconduct always rises as more people get involved.

‘All about recruiting’

But it’s almost like Saban is making this awkward argument against camps: We get in trouble when you give us too many opportunities to get in trouble! To see him pound the podium this week was priceless.

“I don’t know how much it benefits anybody because all the people that say this is creating opportunities for kids, this is all about recruiting,” Saban said. “What’s amazing to me is, somebody didn’t stand up and say, here’s going to be the unintended consequences of what you all are doing.”

The unintended consequence for Saban — ramping up recruiting battles — happens to be an intended consequence for Harbaugh and other Big Ten programs. Harbaugh doesn’t say it, but of course recruiting is a major part of it. Just like dozens of other coaches won’t say it when they come to Detroit next week for the Sound Mind Sound Body Football Academy. And despite the sniping, there indeed is a benefit to players who might not get noticed any other way and aren’t starry enough for, say, Alabama.

If Harbaugh is being disingenuous about his full intent — which he is — so are his detractors. It’s all about protecting a rich talent base, which is why the SEC and ACC pushed for the camp ban, which was quickly overturned.

It’s just a fact of tradition and geography that Midwest programs have to work harder to land talent outside their own area. You think the SEC has won eight of the past 10 national championships simply because it has the best coaches? Not completely.

It’s because of the players, easily plucked where football is a year-round sport. Harbaugh didn’t have the foothold to do it the way others can, so this is pure grunt work, refreshing to see from a Michigan program that long practiced haughty elitism. Harbaugh even mocks coaches, such as Mississippi’s Hugh Freeze, who say they don’t want to work as hard.

Mind games

I don’t know about Harbaugh’s sanity, but he’s driving others crazy. Saban, for one, isn’t interested in continuing the spat.

“I’m not blaming Jim Harbaugh,” Saban said. “I’m not saying anything about it. I’m just saying it’s bad for college football. Jim Harbaugh can do anything he wants to do.”

Hmm, sounds like Saban’s own mantra, success through excess. Saban wins by bludgeoning, and has raised safety concerns in the past about up-tempo offenses designed to counter the bludgeoning. He’s used to winning by conventional means, by any means. Harbaugh presents an unconventional threat who refuses to be ignored, and apparently isn’t afraid of any consequences.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com: @bobwojnowski