ANN ARBOR— There is something to be said about the way Michigan Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh runs a football camp. Whether it’s by way of satellite reach, or through a grassroots setup in his own backyard, he continuously puts on a show at every turn.
Just ask some of the parents.
"Look at him: He's like a kid out there. I love it!" said one player's father during the "A4 Aerial Assault" camp this past Saturday at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.
The definition of “hands-on," Harbaugh participated alongside—and nearly as often—with more than 100 athletes at the quarterback-centric event over the weekend. Jay Cutler of the Chicago Bears, along with former Wolverines stars such as Denard Robinson, Todd Collins and Elvis Grbac, dropped by to assist pods of college hopefuls.
Thanks to a wildly successful “Swarm Tour,” Harbaugh has become the talk of college football, all day, every day. While most media and coaches have praised his aggressive approach, he’s managed to make a few people uncomfortable, particularly Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen and Alabama’s Nick Saban, coaches who have each publicly opposed Harbaugh’s satellite camps.
Harbaugh can’t and won’t please everyone, and the groaning from the SEC proves that his plan is working.
With that being said, recruits can’t get enough of Jim Harbaugh, a man whose reputation for development, competition and constant search for excellence has commanded the attention of some of the nation’s top preps.
“You know, I thought the camp was awesome,” said Allan Walters of Paramus Catholic (New Jersey), a 2018 QB who ended the day with an offer from Michigan. “He brought in baseball, he brought in soccer, he brought in a bounce house, he brought—he just brought everything, just to see how you could compete.
“I thought it was actually really great because it was much different than any other camp. It was much different than doing the typical 1-on-1s, and it showed how much everyone wanted to compete. It was really fun. You got to compete against people in a non-typical way.”
Despite being a week removed from his freshman year of high school, the sophomore-to-be has been around the circuit long enough to know what to expect at events. He's attended the Elite 11 regionals and various Rivals camps, but up until Saturday, he had never experienced anything remotely close to Harbaugh’s mix of grounders, fly-balls, kicking soccer balls into lacrosse nets from more than 10 yards away, par-4 football/trampoline golf courses and bounce houses.
“I don’t think there is any better coach in college football for the quarterback position than Jim Harbaugh,” said Walters, who enjoys doing more than standard footwork and arm strength training.
“[Harbaugh’s] just a guy who has great methods. He develops great people, great quarterbacks, great players and great character. I mean, you can go down the list; he’s coached Andrew Luck, Colin Kaepernick and many more. He just develops and gets the best out of you—physically, mentally and academically. He just wants to see the best in you.”
Two weeks ago, Walters “threw a couple of balls” in front of Wolverines passing coordinator Jedd Fisch during the “Lauren’s First and Goal” camp in Easton, Pennsylvania. Impressed by the 6’2”, 200-pounder’s arm, Fisch wanted another look, so he invited Walters to the “Aerial Assault.”
“I registered, paid and we planned the trip,” said Walters, who traveled by plane with his father. “The camp was well worth it.”
More than just interested, Walters is strongly considering Michigan as his collegiate destination. But he also holds offers from Rutgers and Temple, and schools such as Michigan State, Texas, Penn State, USC and UCLA could be options as well, according to his 247Sports profile.
He's fortunate enough to have plenty of time to plot his course.
“I’d like to go through the process, wait and make my decision by this time next year,” said Walters, who was one of the youngest campers in attendance on Saturday.
Prior to the break following the morning session in Ann Arbor, Grbac mentioned “a few young guys” who were going to be “really good” down the road. It’s safe to say that Walters was among those promising quarterbacks witnessed by Grbac.
Stories such as Walters’ could become commonplace for Harbaugh, who is redefining and re-personalizing the world of football recruiting camps. They’re not completely new ways of approaching the game by any means—he’s done this type of stuff for years—but he seems to be incorporating a little extra effort into the rebuilding of his alma mater.
He’s Harbaugh, rebooted—and that’s been evident throughout the past several weeks.
Harbaugh’s approval rating isn’t high among SEC coaches, but he’s building meaningful relationships with high school coaches in the region, such as T.J. Jackson of Atlantic High School in Del Ray Beach, Florida.
“I think it’s great for them to just travel around and not wait on kids to come to them, because a lot of kids don’t have the financial stability to do that,” said Jackson, who volunteered weeks in advance for the camp at the University of South Florida. Jackson said the tour greatly helped Michigan’s presence in the state.
Jackson already has one former star at Michigan in defensive end Shelton Johnson, an incoming frosh, and he’ll send another to Ann Arbor in 2016: 3-star cornerback Antwaine Richardson, who credited Harbaugh’s satellite camp for essentially discovering him.
Rashad Weaver of Cooper City in Ft. Lauderdale, a 2-star tight end/defensive end, said the same about the benefits of satellite camping with Harbaugh. Without the tour, he would have never been able to make such early contact with Michigan. During a recent phone interview, he jokingly said that the $40 registration fee was the best money his mother had ever spent.
Once offered, both Richardson and Weaver committed.
Like the players, Jackson was also impressed by Harbaugh, who was himself and that's it. His regular-guy persona has previously won over other recruits and coaches, and there was no need to change, Jackson said.
Recruiting and coaching is about treating people like people, not clients or nameless faces. It’s about showing mutual respect and displaying genuine interest. Harbaugh's planting Every Man seeds everywhere he travels.
The same Harbaugh who interacted with players during the “Swarm Tour” and “A4” camp was probably a lot like the one who stepped into the office of Houston Stratford High School coach Eliot Allen back in 2007, looking to recruit a kid named Andrew Luck to Stanford.
"There's a lot of really good recruiters that are out there," Allen said in January, per Bill Landis of the Northeast Ohio Media Group. "In terms of the head coaches, he had a little bit different demeanor than the other guys who come in. He's sort of like a kid in a candy store. He's a high energy guy. Kids like to see that in their leader."
Following the morning session Saturday, Harbaugh made his way to the stands to talk to parents of campers, the same ones who laughed and cheered while watching the Michigan coach pick throws off the turf during baseball drills.
Afterward, he took a few moments to answer questions and explain a few things to local media members. He quickly jumped at the chance to detail the significance of his baseball drills, which were designed to identify those with natural arms, and outline his methodology.
“You can take athletic reps doing just about anything…climbing a tree… there’s so many things," Harbaugh said. "Climbing a tree would be for balance, you know, the athletic reps. There’s athletic reps everywhere to be found...”
He wasn’t being figurative, either. He was being quite literal, and his “everything has a purpose” mode of operation should continue warping the mold of ordinary recruiting and coaching.
He'll host or travel.
Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and references were obtained firsthand by the writer via press conference, press release or other media availability.