For once, Paul Finebaum didn’t require the assistance of “Phyllis from Mulga” (infamous Alabama superfan) or “Tammy from Clanton” (infamous Auburn superfan) to make national headlines.
On Wednesday, the popular, quirky radio host added fuel to the, uh, feud between Jim Harbaugh and SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey by labeling the Michigan head coach as the “Donald Trump of college football.”
What brought on the Harbaugh-Sankey conflict? The SEC commish wanted to block the Wolverines from conducting spring practices at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. — SEC turf — during Michigan’s Spring Break period. And as expected, Harbaugh didn’t react well to Sankey’s public disapproval.
Question of the day: Does anyone find whining to be attractive? Just curious.
— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) February 10, 2016
At first blush, Finebaum’s blunt comparison reads like an insult, since the boastful billionaire Trump and maniacally focused Harbaugh come off as polarizing, almost larger-than-life figures in today’s sound-bite/viral-video culture.
But the comment also reaped unintended positive consequences for Trump (the Republican Party’s leading presidential candidate) and Harbaugh — two highly intelligent individuals who know how to leverage the American media.
“It chaps me to no end when (college) coach after coach reacts to Harbaugh,” Finebaum said on the air, according to The Detroit News. “The rest of the country is supposed to be reacting to the SEC, not the other way around.
“What has Jim Harbaugh done? He had a very good first season (at Michigan). He should have beaten Michigan State — blew it. He should have beaten Ohio State — got run out of the stadium. He did, though … beat the stuffing out of Florida.”
Finebaum’s initial critique of Harbaugh was rooted in accuracy.
The 2015 Wolverines (10-3 overall) took third place in the highly competitive Big Ten East, losing to Michigan State on the final play (a miraculous blocked punt/TD return) and then enduring a 29-point home shellacking to Ohio State in late November. Also, Michigan redeemed itself in a big way during bowl season, fleecing Florida, 41-7; plus, the college football world tends to revolve around the SEC (eight national championships since 2006).
But then, Finebaum got a little sideways with the Harbaugh/Trump connection:
“It’s like (presidential hopeful Marco) Rubio and (John) Kasich and (Jeb) Bush all reacting to Donald Trump. That’s what (Harbaugh) wants. And the Donald Trump of college football, Jim Harbaugh, wants (SEC coaches and officials) to get their panties in a wad and make him an even bigger story.
“I’ve tried to say this over and over again to the SEC coaches: Calm down. Quit reacting. Quit making this guy the winner. He hasn’t done that much.”
Without a doubt, Harbaugh uses the media spotlight and platform like few other college coaches:
a) Last summer, Harbaugh established “satellite camps” in various parts of the country — including the Deep South — as a means of exposing his coaches to football prospects from other regions. At one camp, a shirtless photo of Harbaugh catching a football went viral.
b) Last fall, the ABC/ESPN/Big Ten Network cameras were endlessly fascinated with Harbaugh’s sideline antics.
c) Harbaugh made national news during the latest recruiting cycle, arranging for a so-called sleepover with one of the nation’s top kicking prospects. In reality, Harbaugh was simply hoping to speak with the kid after midnight (the earliest permissible time on that date), while making his impassioned Michigan pitch.
d) Last week, the coach invited Tom Brady, Derek Jeter, Lou Holtz and wrestling legend Ric Flair, among others, to a Web-streamed National Signing Day extravaganza, which also doubled as a charity benefit.
However, Harbaugh has earned the right to be a lightning-rod for the media machine — just like Trump (first-place finish in the New Hampshire primary; second place in Iowa) has earned the right to be the story on the Republican side of the U.S. presidential race.
Which brings us to this: At Finebaum’s behest, it might be fun to compare the head-coaching careers of Harbaugh and Nick Saban before they assumed control at Michigan and Alabama, respectively.
**Back-to-back 11-1 campaigns with the University of San Diego (2005-06)
**Stanford shocks No. 1 Southern California on the road (2007) — despite being 41-point underdogs
**With Andrew Luck at quarterback, the Cardinal go 12-1 in Harbaugh’s final season with Stanford (2010), capped by an Orange Bowl demolition of Virginia Tech
**With the NFL’s 49ers, Harbaugh led San Francisco to three straight NFC title games (2011-13) and a regular-season record of 36-11-1 during that span
**The 49ers claimed the NFC championship in 2012 and almost pulled out a comeback victory over the Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII
**Won a share of the MAC title in 1990 — his only season with the University of Toledo
**Saban went 34-24-1 in five seasons at Michigan State, beating Michigan and Ohio State twice, but going 0-3 in bowl games
**At LSU (2000-04), Saban won 48 games, collected two SEC titles and won the BCS national championship (2003 season)
**Saban had a so-so run with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins (2005-06), posting a 15-17 record over two seasons
The larger point here: Surely, the southern-based Finebaum remembers the hysteria surrounding Saban’s initial hire (January 2007), when Alabama spared no expense in luring the coach back to the college game.
At that time, long before the Crimson Tide’s remarkable run of four SEC titles and four national championships (2007-15), the First Days Of Saban had all the pomp and circumstance of The Beatles coming to America, or The Vatican celebrating a new pope.
Bottom line: Great coaches, like Saban and Harbaugh, or dynamic personalities — like Donald Trump — know how to convert magical media moments into big-picture triumphs.
Even “Phyllis from Mulga” and “Tammy from Clanton,” as rare allies, might find this to be true.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.