Jim Harbaugh vs. the SEC: The Feud That's Changed College Football

Ben AxelrodBig Ten Lead WriterApril 8, 2016

Sep 26, 2015; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh during warm ups prior to the game against the Brigham Young Cougars at Michigan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

If Jim Harbaugh was setting out to make a splash during his first year back on the college football scene, the Michigan Wolverines head coach can consider the past 15 months a mission accomplished.

But as far as Harbaugh's year-plus worth of battles with the Southeastern Conference is concerned, it's the SEC that appears to have won the war.

After a year's worth of discussion, debates and social media spats between Harbaugh and arguably the most powerful conference in college football, the NCAA ruled in the SEC's favor Friday that the satellite camps the Wolverines have benefited from since last offseason are now no longer legal.

In essence, Harbaugh will no longer be able to spend his offseasons hosting satellite camps, where college staffs serve as "guest instructors" at a smaller school's camp. For example, if the University of South Florida in Tampa invites Harbaugh and his staff to work at one of its camps—as it did last summer—the camp is then considered a "Michigan" satellite camp.

For both schools involved, it's a mutually beneficial process. Even with the Wolverines staff becoming the headlining attraction, USF saw a boost in the attendance at its offseason camp due to Harbaugh's notoriety. For Michigan, the practice gave its staff access and visibility to prospects in a region to which it otherwise would not have direct access.

But Harbaugh's offseason plans have now been altered, just as he was in the midst of plotting a sequel to last year's "Summer Swarm Tour," a blockbuster nine-day, seven-state tour of satellite camps that included stops in California, Texas, Alabama and Florida. The second-year Wolverines head coach wasn't even the first to take advantage of the loophole idea, as Penn State's James Franklin previously hosted satellite camps in Georgia and Florida in 2014.

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And while the SEC was displeased with the practice then, it wasn't until Harbaugh's first swarm tour last summer that the conference began applying pressure, threatening to hold its own satellite camps if the Big Ten—and the rest of college football—wasn't banned from doing the same. The result is the NCAA's Friday ruling, which will not only affect the SEC, Harbaugh, the rest of the Big Ten and all of college football, but also high school prospects for the foreseeable future.

How did we get to a place where "The Harbaugh Rule" is being nicknamed for the coach who didn't even pioneer the practice? A lot of it has to do with just how successful the controversial coach has already become.

Turf Wars

Frank LaRosa has been coaching high school football in Florida for the past 11 years. The head coach since 2011 at East Bay High School in Gibsonton, located right outside of Tampa, LaRosa is well-versed in the talent the Sunshine State typically produces.

"The SEC's been living off of these great athletes for so long, and everybody wants a piece of them now," LaRosa told Bleacher Report. "There's so many of them in Florida. ... In Tampa Bay, just the level of athletes that we've seen and produced in 11 years has gotten better and better."

Ralph Russo/Associated Press

In his decade-long coaching career, LaRosa has become most accustomed to dealing with colleges from his own region, specifically the in-state schools of Florida, Florida State and Miami. It wasn't until a year ago that Michigan first appeared on his players' radars, thanks to Harbaugh's first Summer Swarm Tour, which included the aforementioned stop at USF, where LaRosa served as a counselor.

"When he did that last summer, that really spearheaded the whole thing," LaRosa said. "I've been coaching football in Florida for 11 years, and I've never heard a buzz about Michigan until last year. And now it seems like every kid is looking for a Michigan offer. It's crazy.

"It went from the Big Three and some of the other elite schools in the Power Five conferences—and you rarely heard Michigan—[to] all of a sudden, every kid's dying for that Michigan offer...Tre' McKitty, Jayvaughn Myers, Daquon Green. These are some of the biggest 2017 names coming out of this area, and they were like, 'Who the heck is Michigan?' and all of a sudden, got some love, worked with some of their coaches at the camp and were like, 'Oh, it's all about Michigan.'"

The Swarm Tour was the centerpiece of Harbaugh's first offseason in Ann Arbor. Harbaugh's highly touted 2016 class included multiple members who had attended stops on the circuit and may not have considered the Wolverines otherwise.

Unsurprisingly, the tour was not well-received by the SEC, which unlike the Big Ten, had a rule in place prohibiting its schools from hosting camps more than 50 miles from campus.

Alabama's Nick Saban called the practice "ridiculous," and Auburn's Gus Malzahn went on record opposing satellite camps as well. Harbaugh responded publicly, via Twitter, inviting every coach in the country to, in essence, hold his own satellite camp in Ann Arbor by co-hosting Michigan's own summer camp.

That peace offering held little water with the SEC, which decided at its annual meetings last spring if Michigan and other Big Ten schools weren't banned from hosting satellite camps, anarchy would ensue as the SEC would soon follow in the practice. In other words, what had already essentially become a 24/7, 365-days-a-year recruiting calendar would soon include a nonstop offseason traveling circus of satellite camps featuring the sport's highest-profile coaches.

Other teams in the Big Ten had already followed suit, with Ohio State and Urban Meyer trying their hand at the practice by hosting a satellite camp on the campus of Florida Atlantic last June.

As Garin Patrick, the defensive line coach at prep powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, explained, the value in such practices comes in a school's ability to gain exposure in a state so used to being primarily recruited by its local schools.

"It's just so hard because all [the prospects] know is Miami, Florida and Florida State. And a lot of them come from tough upbringings where their families don't have the money to travel and go out of state," Patrick told Bleacher Report a few weeks before Friday's ruling. "There’s other kids, too, who want to get out and see stuff, and they're very open to it. I think it's good that [Harbaugh's] down here. He's pushing the envelope. Doing what he's doing, I think it's only going to make the Big Ten better."

This offseason, Meyer had already announced a satellite camp appearance in Georgia, while Penn State and Franklin were slated to co-host a camp at Old Dominion. Harbaugh, meanwhile, had been linked to four satellite stops this offseason, including stays in Mississippi, Alabama, Texas and Georgia.

With the NCAA's ruling, however, those plans appear to be null and void. According to ESPN's Brett McMurphy, the voting on the matter breaks down as one might expect:


The Harbaugh Effect

Although Franklin was holding satellite camps two years ago, it wasn't until this past January the SEC—and ACCsubmitted proposals to the NCAA seeking the end of satellite camps.

"Why the big deal with Harbaugh?" asks B. David Ridpath, a sports administration professor at Ohio University and the co-editor of the Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics.

It's a fair question, one with an answer that may be rooted in multiple theories.

For one, Franklin wasn't hosting camps nearly as frequently as Harbaugh, nor was he finding the same level of success. Several players from Michigan's fifth-ranked 2016 class attended one of Harbaugh's 10 camps last offseason, including but not limited to 4-star prospects such as linebacker Devin Bush Jr., quarterback Brandon Peters and cornerback David Long, as well as 3-star safeties Josh Metellus and Devin Gil and running back Kingston Davis.

"Any coach I've ever worked with has always said, 'We've got to maximize the rules as much as we can," Ridpath said in early March. "Maybe Harbaugh's taken it to another level."

And then there's the reality of Harbaugh's fiery personality, which brought significantly more attention to the matter of satellite camps than Franklin's quieter approach did two years ago. Any time your canned response is, "In my America, you're allowed to cross state borders," as Harbaugh's has been for the past year, it's bound to create headlines.

It's also the type of attitude that's likely to appeal to the kind of athletes for which Division I schools have long looked.

"His personality is perfect for the 'Florida athlete,'" LaRosa said. "The Florida athlete's got that swagger; he's got that confidence. And even though they may come across as prima donnas, they have a blue-collar mentality. They're gonna be brash, but they're not going to back down from working or outworking other guys."

Perhaps allowing the low-key Franklin into its backyard, while not preferred, was at least tolerable for the SEC compared to the attitude and recruiting acumen Harbaugh possesses. If anything, Harbaugh's approach was a sign of how far recruiting in the Big Ten has come in just the past few years.

"Prior to Urban Meyer arriving in the Big Ten [in 2012], a lot of the recruiting was very basic. There was a feeling of some sort of gentlemen's agreement where, 'We are the Big Ten and this is the way that we recruit,'" Mike Farrell, the national recruiting director for Rivals.com, told Bleacher Report. "Harbaugh's taken another step."


What's Next?

While the battle over satellite camps appears to be over, the war between Harbaugh and the SEC over off-campus spring practices—like the one Michigan just held in Bradenton, Florida—is still alive or, at the very least, on life support.

At this point, however, another SEC victory in the war almost seems like a formality, if it wasn't already, given NCAA President Mark Emmert's comments on the matter while speaking to the University of South Carolina's board of trustees in February.

"There's a difference between not being prohibited and being OK," Emmert said of off-campus spring practices, per the State's Josh Kendall. "We are trying to find ways to dial back the demands on student-athletes, not ramp them up."

That falls in line with the SEC's primary argument against Michigan's spring setup, as outlined by SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, who said the off-campus practices create additional time demands by eliminating spring breaks.

And while Harbaugh's public justification for heading to Florida is that doing so allows players to still enjoy a spring break-like atmosphere while wrapping up spring practice in time to be able to fully focus on semester exams at the end of April, the reality is both sides are arguing over the same thing: recruiting regulations.

"On both sides, the time-demands issue is very self-serving," Ridpath said. "Harbaugh found a loophole and he's maximizing it, and of course, when you have a loophole, you're going to have people try to exploit it as much as possible."

Although the NCAA is yet to rule on the matter, Farrell concurred that the Wolverines' first spring practice session in Florida would likely be their last.

"I think it gets shut down before next spring. Especially with Meyer and [Michigan State's Mark] Dantonio both saying they'd be interested in doing it," Farrell said. "I think the NCAA will take a look at that and say, 'OK, if they're gonna do it, that's three schools. There's gonna be other schools that wanna do it, and this could turn into a traveling circus.' I think the NCAA will shut it down, which would be the smart thing to do, because it opens a can of worms that I don’t think the NCAA wants to deal with."

As of Friday, the NCAA seems intent on keeping any Pandora's box shut that it can, which is why satellite camps have come to an end, effective immediately. In the end, the SEC got what it wanted: less access for the teams up north to the more talented crop of players who reside down south.

But while he may have wound up the loser in all of this, Harbaugh walks away from his war with the SEC having gained plenty as well.

Aside from the first—and apparently only—Summer Swarm Tour paving the way toward such a talented 2016 class, Harbaugh's spat with the SEC created a buzz around his program it didn't possess when he took over his alma mater following a 5-7 season in 2014.

This offseason alone, Harbaugh has engaged in Twitter battles with Georgia's Kirby Smart, Tennessee's Butch Jones and even Sankey himself over the debate of spring practices, making him a mainstay in the headlines during a typically dead period in the college football news cycle.

"He's an extremely creative person," Farrell said. "He knows how to rattle some cages and stay in the media focus, which is always helpful for recruiting and for your program."

Michigan's recent recruiting run won't die along with the end of satellite camps or even the likely demise of off-campus spring practices. But Harbaugh now will have to find a new way to keep his name in the headlines as college football's most prominent offseason feud appears to have come to its end.

The result? A new rule that will benefit the SEC and a year's worth of publicity for a program and head coach in need of just that.

Maybe everybody won.


Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of CFBStats.com. Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.

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