Harbaugh using disputed spring practices to Michigan’s advantage
BRADENTON, Fla. — A breeze floated in off the Gulf of Mexico a few miles west. The temperature had just dropped into the 60s following the sun’s plunge into the pink horizon. As darkness fell and palm trees swayed, Michigan tight end Jake Butt discussed getting his spring break ripped away by his taskmaster coach.
“We don’t have to worry about classes now. All we can focus on is football, and then we’re out on the beach relaxing. It’s unbelievable,” Butt said Tuesday. “Not everyone on our team is going to be able to take a spring break to get away. We’re away. We’re down here in Florida. Beautiful territory. Sun shining. Not too hot. Nice breeze. Eating great food with our brothers. I don’t have anything negative to say about it.”
What, you thought he was going to complain?
Butt and the Wolverines have watched others twist themselves into knots about Jim Harbaugh’s vacation. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey ripped Harbaugh’s idea of practicing at IMG Academy, which has a high school team that features 13 class of 2017 players with four- or five-star rankings from Scout.com. ACC commissioner John Swofford joined the chorus. So did NCAA president Mark Emmert. The first two men cloaked their arguments in the veil of student-athlete welfare even though their real concern is protecting their schools’ precious recruiting territory from these snowbirds. The third man runs an organization that has spent millions paying attorneys who have crafted a legal defense grounded in the idea that major college football players are just plain old college students who happen to play football. Taking away the players’ chance to funnel Natural Light with the rest of the plain old college students in Panama City—or go on a mission trip to Haiti, if they swing that way—doesn’t exactly reinforce a defense that never reflected reality in the first place.
Butt had volunteered his opinion of all this on Twitter, but Tuesday was the first chance anyone had to interview Michigan players and ask how they felt about Harbaugh’s turn as a travel agent.
“I saw guys ripping on him about how this is our free time. But no one asked us,” Butt said. “No one asked us how we felt about it. If you had asked me, I’d have backed him right away.”
As a card-carrying member of the group that believes players should get a bigger slice of the pie now that the biggest conferences have become cable television programmers, I’m supposed to be mad about this. But I’m not. After all, I was the one who wrote about Alabama’s Derrick Henry leading teammates through workouts during spring break last year as evidence of his dedication to his craft. The best players are going to spend at least part of their spring break working on football anyway. For the reasons Butt referenced above, there are more positives to Harbaugh’s idea there are negatives. Plus, if schools would simply drop the charade and admit that revenue sport players are earners for the athletic department and conference and that the athletic scholarship is compensation for performance, then we could skip the disingenuous rhetoric that accompanies most of the envelope pushing in college football. Sure, schools might eventually have to pack more into the scholarship check than the actual cost of attendance, but such is life when one chooses to sell television shows for ludicrous sums. Occasionally, the casts deserve a raise.
Plus, taking away vacation time isn’t a new concept. When football players are forced to spend part of their winter break in Shreveport, La., no conference commissioner complains. To them, that’s a beautiful swatch of the fabric of college football. Nor is taking away vacation time out of season a new concept. Basketball teams routinely go abroad for summer tours. Harbaugh, the brother-in-law of Indiana hoops coach Tom Crean, is quite familiar with that practice.
Is Harbaugh doing this to get closer to potentially valuable recruits? Absolutely. The Michigan program is living for a week in a place crawling with them. Even though coaches aren’t allowed to say more than “Hello” to those recruits, an up-close look at the program could intrigue those players enough to consider the Wolverines. Should SEC and ACC coaches be mad at Harbaugh for this? Of course. They should be mad that he thought of it first and they didn’t. They also shouldn’t worry so much about losing a competitive edge. Their campuses are still closer to where the best recruits live. That glorious sunset Tuesday? They have those in Coral Gables, Gainesville and Tallahassee. No one has to fly anywhere. The high temperature in Ann Arbor on Tuesday was 30 degrees, and after this week the Wolverines have to fly home. Harbaugh still has to convince any southern player whose interest is piqued by Michigan’s visit to move north. That is the prohibitive advantage for the SEC and the southern ACC coaches. That is why Harbaugh must be more creative.
Those aggrieved coaches likely will get a rule passed in the next year to make sure no one ever does this again, and this will put Harbaugh in excellent company. Nine years ago, SEC and ACC coaches freaked out about a first-year head coach who made whirlwind trips around the South to high schools during the spring evaluation period. They accused him of breaking the NCAA’s “bump rule,” but in reality they just didn’t want to work as hard as he did. His name is Nick Saban, and since the passage of the “Saban Rule,” which banned head coaches from visiting schools during that spring evaluation period, Saban’s Alabama teams have won four national titles. Saban responded to the rule by becoming one of the first coaches to use video conferencing to contact recruits. If Harbaugh’s plan meets regulatory resistance next year, he’ll probably come up with something else his fellow coaches will wish they’d thought of first.
Besides the benefits Butt listed above, Harbaugh seems to be using his off-season adventures as a sort of sleight of hand. If we keep watching his Twitter feed and only ask him about his newest ploy or his night in the crowd at Monday Night Raw, then he doesn’t have to reveal anything about how much his team is improving. He doesn’t have to dodge schematic questions. He doesn’t have to reveal whether Houston transfer John O’Korn will follow Iowa transfer Jake Rudock as Michigan’s starting quarterback.
If we keep discussing Harbaugh’s exploits, then we’ll probably miss the bigger picture. That’s what he’s relying upon. He knows he’s going to have a better team than the one that went 10–3 in 2015. He might have the nation’s best player in Jabrill Peppers, who can play safety, linebacker, tailback and return kicks. Peppers is playing strongside linebacker in first-year coordinator Don Brown’s defense. Or at least that could be his listed position. In reality, he’ll play everywhere. This is why NFL scouts are drooling over former UCLA linebacker Myles Jack, and former Duke safety Jeremy Cash, who played a similar Swiss Army knife position for the Blue Devils, is hoping he can show improved coverage skills to make himself an invaluable piece of a defense. Peppers allows the Wolverines to run a nickel defense with base personnel, and that could drive opposing quarterbacks insane.
“That’s the beauty of it,” Brown said. “We had a package today where he was technically a linebacker. You may think you’re going to get one alignment, but we could do completely different stuff. Who says he has to be in there playing that position? Today he was. Two days from now, he may not. That’s how we roll with that.”
Meanwhile, the offense finally has some stability after years of tumult.
“I’ve had to learn a new offense every single year except this year,” Butt said. “We sat in the meetings the other day and I was like, ‘Wow, I know all this.’ I’m a quick learner, but it’s refreshing.”
Junior Mason Cole, who played tackle his first two seasons but is, like last year, also working at center in the spring, has noticed he and his linemates asking position coach Tim Drevno more advanced questions. Instead of the “where” and “who” players focus on while installing an offense for the first time, the Wolverines now know enough to ask why.
“It’s great just being able to build off where we left,” Cole said. “Not having to learn a whole new offense this season is remarkable.”
For Cole, this week has been a homecoming. He’s from nearby Tarpon Springs. But Florida high schools hold their spring practices in May, so Cole is accustomed to boiling temperatures. He’s getting Chamber of Commerce weather this week.
“This is a lot different,” Cole said. “This is beautiful.”
He shouldn’t plan for a return next year because the other schools probably will block Harbaugh from doing this again. That might be a shame because Butt makes a pretty convincing case for why players should have the option to choose a program that schedules spring practice this way.
“I think more teams should do this. It’s a brilliant idea,” Butt said. Then he thought about what he’d just said.
“I hope they don’t,” he said, “because then we’ve got more competition.”