Full credit to the man in khakis: Jim Harbaugh is amusing me.
This business over Harbaugh bringing his Michigan Wolverines to Florida for four days of spring practice starting Monday isn’t quite laugh-out-loud funny, but it definitely warrants a tee-hee. Anyone who ruffles SEC feathers when it comes to football recruiting gets high marks because — stop me if you’ve heard this one — the SEC is Very Serious about recruiting.
And it’s just SEC coaches. Greg Sankey, the league’s new commissioner, is seeking an NCAA rule prohibiting such spring-break forays. This prompted Harbaugh to respond via Twitter: “Does anyone find whining to be attractive?”
I came close to laughing out loud at that. Especially when Sankey’s harrumphing comeback was, as reported by Brandon Marcello of Al.com: “I’m not going to reduce what is an important conversation to some childhood use of Twitter.”
(Know who made a big deal of live-tweeting the moments leading to his first state-of-the-SEC address – a snoozer, FYI – at Media Days last July? Greg Sankey. Apparently that constituted an adult use of Twitter.)
I get that SEC folks – and not only SEC folks; ACC commissioner John Swafford and the gasbag NCAA president Mark Emmert have weighed in – are upset. Regarding recruiting, the mighty SEC is accustomed to outflanking everybody. Remember Lane Kiffin buzzing around Atlanta in a helicopter while stumping for Tennessee? Remember how certain SEC schools helped usher the terms “oversigning” and “grayshirting” into the lexicon?
Sankey insists his objections to Harbaugh’s spring fling are humanitarian: The mean ol’ Michigan man is forcing student-athletes to toil in the Florida sunshine over their spring break. (“What’s unfortunate is that people try to reduce this to simply a competitive issue,” Sankey told Marcello.) But Kirby Smart, who played and works in the SEC, undercut that high-minded assertion, telling the Macon Touchdown Club: “They’re obviously trying to gain a competitive advantage, and that’s their right.”
Yes, they are. And yes, it is.
Harbaugh offered this tweeted riposte: “If the Georgia coach is implying any intent on our part to break rules, he is barking up the wrong tree.” (As Twitter putdowns go, that’s an ace. Didn’t deign to mention Smart by name but made – I assume intentionally – a pun about Bulldogs.)
The funny part about Smart’s not-inaccurate characterization was that, if anyone should know about gaining a competitive advantage, it’s someone who worked for Nick Saban. (Smart did for eight years at Alabama.) It was Saban’s repeated “bumping” into recruits while making spring visits to high schools that compelled the NCAA to enact the “Saban Rule” in 2008.
(Oh, and who used a yellow chopper to recruit in Atlanta this month? Kirby Smart. Who had recruits carted around Athens in a convoy of Chevy Tahoes? Kirby Smart. As athletic director Greg McGarity told the AJC: “It’s up to the coach to be creative. If it’s legal to do and passes compliance, fine.”)
Back to Saban. As Jon Solomon of CBS Sports notes, the prohibition of such spring visits led to a Saban rethink. Writes Solomon: “He found a workaround by adopting video conferencing with recruits.”
Smart was surely correct in saying, “In due time the NCAA will have to step in.” That’s how recruiting goes. Some coach gets too creative and the NCAA scurries to spoil the fun. But this was, you’d have to say, one lollapalooza of a loophole Harbaugh found.
Michigan’s four Florida practices? They won’t be held in some Ocala orange grove. They’ll be staged in Bradenton at the IMG Academy, which features a dozen of the nation’s top recruits for 2017. Jack and Jackie Harbaugh raised no dummies.
Smart called the IMG practices “a Pandora’s box,” which is coachspeak for, “How come we didn’t think of that?” And that’s the genius part of Harbaugh’s Southern swing. There’s no possible retaliatory strike.
Think about it. If an SEC coach told his players, “Men, you’ll be spending spring break in Ypsilanti,” he’d be down to 15 scholarship athletes by nightfall.