SEC Squirms Under Harbaugh Onslaught

Oh, lookie here, the SEC wants what’s best for the kids!

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey whined to the NCAA about Jim Harbaugh’s plan to take his merry band of Michigan Wolverines to Florida for a week of spring practice. Those players should have a proper spring break! cried Sankey and the SEC. It would be so patently unfair for the Michigan players to have a week in the sun and warmth of Tampa instead of freezing their toes off up in Ann Arbor.

But this reaction surprised no one. For the SEC’s unofficial motto has always been “rules for thee, but not for me.”

Jim Harbaugh seems to be unaware of that motto, or he’s very aware but just didn’t give a flying fig about it. Last year, he ruffled SEC feathers by holding satellite camps throughout the South and also having a star-studded on-campus camp that featured head coaches from other schools.

Voila!, the SEC responded by submitting to the NCAA a proposal in January that would abolish satellite camps and also prohibit coaches from working as guest coaches at another school’s camp, as Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald did last summer at Harbaugh’s summer camp in Ann Arbor.

Make no mistake, Harbaugh is a lightning rod, and his every move is designed to upset the status quo. After a successful first year back in college ball as he led Michigan to a 10-3 record with a rout of SEC East champ Florida in the Citrus Bowl, he’s going to push the envelope some more. And if the SEC is upset about it, all the better.

Harbaugh understands that the playing field in college football isn’t level. And in order to restore Michigan – the winningest program in the sport but has not won a national title since 1997 – to the status of a playoff contender, he must correct the imbalance.

One of the key advantages the SEC (and southern) schools has is the weather. It’s the primary reason why a plurality of the best high school recruits now reside in the South and tend to stay in the South for college. For a midwest power such as Michigan, Ohio State or Penn State to compete, it must corral a fair share of the southern talent.

Urban Meyer has done that at Ohio State, and has the 2014 national championship to show for it. Harbaugh has followed suit in his first full recruiting class in 2016, getting nine of his class of 28 from SEC country, including six from Florida. In fact, his class is a truly national one, with six recruits from New Jersey and three from California, and all points in between.

Harbaugh is stamping the Michigan brand nationally, and the spring practice in Florida plan is part of that campaign. He explained after the “Signing of the Star” showcase (something that also didn’t go over well in SEC country) that the Wolverines’ week at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., is not all about football but also fun and games of other kinds.

“We’re going to have swim meets, we’re going to have putt-putt golf, we’re going to have football meetings, we’re going to have practice,” Harbaugh said. “I think it gives us a chance to win on a lot of different levels. …

“We’ll be outside, we’ll be in Florida, we’ll go to the beach. It will be a good time for our team to connect and be together. That’s a lot of levels right there to win on, so I’m very much looking forward to it.”

But not the SEC honchos. It’s an encroachment on their territory and they don’t like it very much. Sankey and Co. might not be able to stop Harbaugh this year, but they hope their proposal will get their NCAA lackeys to go along and shut this thing down after just one episode.

The SEC is very protective of its territory, so much so that it rarely ventures outside of it – when it comes to playing football. Last season, only one SEC team went outside of the conference’s footprint for a game – LSU played at ACC bottom-feeder Syracuse. And every SEC-contracted bowl game is held inside the conference’s 11-state area.

The SEC won’t go up to Ann Arbor, Columbus or Madison for a game in November (or any other time, for that matter), and it doesn’t want anybody to set foot in its domain. OK, fine. But to use the rationale of protecting the student-athletes’ free time to scuttle the Michigan spring camp is a cosmic joke.

Maybe the SEC should look at its own schools to see what its own “student-athletes” are doing? There has been at least seven major infractions incurred by SEC schools in the last six years. The latest involves Ole Miss and also Tennessee, which allegedly has been sweeping sexual misconduct by its football players under the rug.

But even with all these rules violations, no SEC football program has received a postseason ban since Mississippi State in 2004. Maybe this is why the SEC is so comfortable to go to Indianapolis to insist on new rules for others while the NCAA continues to look the other way when it comes to the SEC.

“Rules for thee, but not for me.”

Postscript: Harbaugh has responded in kind with yet another classic subtweet:

 

Winners and Losers of 2016 Signing Day

National Signing Day never seems to disappoint nowadays. Every year, somebody ups the ante on the hijinks.

On Wednesday, we had Deontay Anderson announcing his decision to go to Ole Miss while skydiving. Mecole Hardman had four cakes and didn’t eat any of them because the Georgia commit was just trolling everyone. And the nation’s top recruit Rashan Gary and his large contingent of family and friends flew up to Bristol, Conn., to reveal his school of choice in ESPN’s studios.

But none of that topped “Signing of the Stars” extravaganza at the University of Michigan. Thanks to a highly polished production by The Players’ Tribune, the show was part-pep rally, part-American Idol and mostly an informercial for the Wolverines. The star-studded cast included Tom Brady, Derek Jeter and Lou Holtz, but the one who brought the house down was Ric Flair.

Woooooo!

Just like on the football field in the fall, whenever there’s competition, there are winners and losers. Here’s our quick take on the recruiting scoreboard after Signing Day:

(All rankings courtesy of Rivals.com)

Winners

Jim Harbaugh: The man who can’t stop making news was once again the headliner. Not only did he conceive “Signing of the Stars” that packed the Hill Auditorium on the Michigan campus, he also hauled in the Wolverines’ best class in a decade, coming in at No. 4 after securing the commitment of the aforementioned Gary. And of course he didn’t stop there: Harbaugh says Michigan will have its first week of spring practice at the IMG Academy in Florida, which will cause lots of teeth gnashing and whining down south.

Alabama: While Harbaugh made the most noise, Nick Saban quietly came out on top, with a flurry of signings – nine in all – on Wednesday to finish with his fifth top-ranked recruiting class in the last six years. The defending national champions just did a quick reload, especially on defense.

SEC: LSU and Ole Miss came close to dethroning ‘Bama for the top-ranked recruiting class and finished sixth and seventh. In all, SEC teams occupied half of the top 10 and eight of the top 16 spots. Saban’s protege Kirby Smart did well to haul in the No. 10-ranked class despite splitting time after getting the Georgia job while continue to coordinate the Tide’s title-winning defense.

USC: Despite all the turmoil – a third coaching change in the last three years – the Trojans had a spectacular Signing Day to end up with the eighth-ranked class after beating ‘Bama for first last year. Clay Helton, only named permanent head coach in early December, capped off the day by nabbing five-star corner Jack Jones out of Long Beach Poly to finish with the best class in the Pac-12, and west of the Mississippi.

Charlie Strong: Coming off a 5-7 season, things were looking pretty bleak for the coach entering his third season in Austin. Texas’ recruiting class were ranked well outside of the top 20 coming into Signing Day but Charlie finished strong, not only landing a few five- and four-star recruits but picking them off Texas A&M to boot. Strong’s class ended up 13th, easily the best in the Big 12.

Losers

ACC’s Also-Rans: Florida State and Clemson have dominated the ACC for the last five years, and that trend doesn’t look to be halted anytime soon. The ‘Noles and Tigers finished with the second- and fifth-ranked classes, respectively, while no one else in the ACC landed in the top 20. Mark Richt’s rebuilding project at Miami will require some patience as the ‘Canes came in a distant third among ACC schools, at No. 22.

Non-Power 5: How big is the gap between the haves and have-nots? Look no farther than Signing Day, as the top-rated class by a Group of Five school came in 44th, well behind such Power 5 bottom feeders as Kentucky and Maryland. And that class belongs to Tom Herman’s Houston Cougars, who were coming off a brilliant 13-1 season capped by manhandling Florida State in the Peach Bowl.

Penn State: James Franklin’s class came in fourth in the Big Ten … the bad news is that it’s also fourth in the cut-throat Big Ten East, well behind Ohio State, Michigan and even Michigan State. The Nittany Lions’ No. 23-ranked class was hurt by a few late defections, most glaringly top-rated kicker Quinn Nordin, who flipped to Michigan after Harbaugh came to his house for a sleepover.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights joined the Big Ten with the expectations that being in the preeminent conference in college sports will help them keep a good number of New Jersey’s top players, as the state is a fertile football recruiting ground. That didn’t happen, at least not on this Signing Day, as nine of the state’s top 10 players did indeed stay in the Big Ten, just not going to Rutgers (the other went to Tennessee). That includes Paramus Catholic’s Gary, the top-rated recruit.

Pac-12 Network: While ESPN’s networks, including the SEC Network, and the Big Ten Network competed for audience on Signing Day, not much was heard from the Pac-12 Network, as it joined the fray way too late in the day when all the festivities were nearly over. In addition, since the network is still lightly distributed even in the conference’s own footprint, never mind nationally, few even thought about tuning in anyway.