By Vince Nicastro*

March 15, 2016

Jim Harbaugh enjoys a well-earned reputation for being a hardnosed and fiery competitor.  From his playing days, and now throughout his collegiate and professional coaching career, Harbaugh continues to exhibit levels of toughness and aggression that border on maniacal.

In his short tenure as the head coach at his alma mater, the University of Michigan, Harbaugh certainly hasn’t deviated from past practice.  Many of his coaching and recruiting tactics can be described as unorthodox, or “pushing the envelope.”  His approach tends to rub people the wrong way, fans and foes alike.

National Signing Day

Recent weeks have illustrated that Harbaugh continues to be a disrupter, or should we say, an innovator.  For National Signing Day he organized a high profile event on campus to unveil his latest class of recruits (including the number one rated recruit in the nation) in front of a crowd of over 3,000 Wolverine fans.  Activities included things one might see at a high profile awards ceremony, complete with all of the glitz and glamour.  Celebrities like Derek Jeter, Mike Shanahan, Lou Holtz, and the inimitable Ric Flair participated.  Some who attended even had a connection with the University of Michigan, like Tom Brady.  Of course, critics would argue that this type of side-show is simply unbecoming a school and tradition like Michigan’s.  An unapologetic Harbaugh would beg to differ.

Of course, national signing day antics are increasing all around the country.  Harbaugh simply takes it to the next level and/or beats his competitors to the punch.  After all, his recruiting class was ranked among the top 5 in the nation.

The Wolverines Head to Florida for Spring Practice

More recently, Harbaugh gained attention by taking his team to IMG Academy in Florida for a spring break training camp.  The announcement and corresponding trip really ruffled some feathers in the college football world.  The initial outcry was focused on the merits of taking a team away from campus during a break period (in the off season) for spring football practice.  For the record, this is not prohibited by NCAA rules.  But, in the backdrop of the debate over student-athlete time demands, it isn’t a great look for Michigan.  And, not coincidentally, IMG Academy has an inordinate number of high level recruits.

To be clear, other sports routinely engage in training trips similar to the one at Michigan.  It is quite common for swimming, rowing, baseball, softball, golf and others to go south for spring break training and or competition.  As an athletic director, our swim team sometimes went on training trips during semester breaks in the fall, winter, and spring.  And to some terrific destinations, by the way.  Of course, some of these sports are “in season” and some “out of season,” which makes a difference in the time demands argument.

In addition, international trips for teams (generally during summer breaks) have been part of college athletics for many years.  The educational rationale for such trips generally leans on the cultural value of providing a global experience for students, particularly those whose schedules inhibit the typical study abroad experience.  That is certainly an important benefit, but it is clear to me that coaches relish the additional practice and competition opportunities even more.

Is this a case where Harbaugh simply outmaneuvered his competition here?  Is the opposition to sending football teams all over the country for spring practice genuinely tethered to the time demand issue?  Or, is it a case of sour grapes from other programs who see this as a competitive advantage for Michigan and want to level the playing field?

If one has to guess, it would seem that this strategy will soon be ruled impermissible by the DI membership.  So, Harbaugh enjoyed the trip and will now move on to finding another way to disrupt the status quo in college football.  All the while, staying one step ahead of the competition.


*Vince Nicastro is the former Athletic Director for Villanova University, and currently serves as Associate Director for the Jeffrey S. Moorad Center for the Study of Sports Law.


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