With National Signing Day in the rearview a college football fan’s thoughts tend to move on to the next red letter day(s) on the calendar: spring practice.
And while Coach Kirby Smart is imploring Bulldog fans to pack out Sanford Stadium for G-Day in a couple of months, he’s not the only coach looking to take advantage of the spring to build a little program momentum. Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh caused a stir on Signing Day when he announced his plan to conduct the first week of his squad’s spring practice in Florida at IMG Academy, the football factory/boarding school which has accumulated a lot of talented athletes from across the country, including new Bulldog Isaac Nauta.
Harbaugh’s intentions are pretty clear. By spending a week in Florida he’s making it possible for blue chip recruits (of which there are perennially more within 30 miles of Brandenton than in the entire state of Michigan) to come out, see his team, talk to the coaches, and just generally be around the maize and blue. That would be difficult for Florida players to do if the Wolverines were practicing in Ann Arbor. And as a visitor to Ann Arbor during the winter (which lasts until April Fool’s Day) I can assure you that Florida is a more hospitable environment for those contacts. Michigan in September? Cool and briskly refreshing. Michigan from Thanksgiving through Easter? The ice planet Hoth with more wildlife and better beer.
Naturally Harbaugh’s gambit has Greg Sankey and the SEC coaches up in arms. I can’t say I blame them completely. In the cut throat world of college football recruiting they almost must object to anything Harbaugh does to gain a toe hold in a recruiting territory which puts the barren wasteland in which he resides to shame. Sankey has lodged a formal objection to the plan, which I don’t believe is likely to be successful. I would think however that there might be some interesting rules considerations to the Wolverine Spring Break Tour. For example, if all the Michigan coaches are present at the same time on the IMG campus, a school attended by student athletes recruited by Michigan, are they all burning their number of in person contacts with recruits? Exactly how many “bump” contacts is the NCAA willing to tolerate?
That being said, I don’t know that I’d be too worried about Jim’s big week out if I were Kirby Smart, Nick Saban, or Jim McElwain*. For one, Harbaugh’s still going to have to get players (and parents) up to the frozen north at some point before Signing Day. That’s going to be a great reminder that Ann Arbor is still a heckuva long way from Orlando.
Even in this connected world of ours, the best predictor of where a recruit will sign remains where he’s grown up. I don’t think Harbaugh’s going to turn Johnny Five Star from a lifelong Florida State Seminole to a dyed in the wool Wolverine by having him witness a few practices. At best this probably gets Harbaugh some notoriety (mission accomplished) and gets him on the radar of some recruits who otherwise would just dismiss Michigan.
Finally, you have to wonder how Mark Dantonio, Urban Meyer, and other Rust Belt coaches spin this one. If I were Dantonio I’d be visiting every high school coach and top recruit from Detroit to Ontonagon and asking them if they’ve seen ole Jimmy around. In short, this move may help Harbaugh a little, but it probably doesn’t really hurt SEC programs that much. If anything, it gives Harbaugh the chance to crow that a dog only howls when he’s hurt, which means that he’s really taking it to the SEC.
In the end, if Harbaugh can’t beat Urban Meyer consistently or If the Wolverines continue to lose to Dantonio’s Spartans, none of that will matter. College football, like politics, is still local. And Harbaugh’s Florida vacation will only be memorable if it helps him become the big bully in the Big Ten.
* To be fair, McElwain's Harbaugh worries should probably center on avoiding another savage bowl loss to the Wolverines.