In the world of recruiting, it’s every man for himself.
Coaches nationwide are all trying to sell the same thing: a great athletic program and a great education at a top university. The University of Michigan has both, but that doesn’t mean coach Jim Harbaugh can take it easy. Recruiting continues until a player’s signature is on his national letter of intent.
What Harbaugh has done is extend Michigan’s reach across the country to assemble a top-five recruiting class while simultaneously adding his flair to the recruiting process. However, it’s not as much who Harbaugh is getting to commit as much as how he’s doing it.
In pursuit of recruits with National Signing Day on Wednesday, Harbaugh has climbed a tree in a recruit’s backyard in California, attended a recruit’s world religions class in California, had sleepovers with recruits in two states and hit the dab for a video in a recruit’s living room. He even wanted to go sledding with a recruit, but the player had to get to school.
Harbaugh also has faced questions as five players decommitted late in the process, including Downers Grove (Ill.) four-star offensive lineman Erik Swenson, who had been a Michigan commit since November 2013. Swenson, who committed to Oklahoma on Saturday, went public with the fact that his scholarship offer was rescinded without explanation.His coach was also critical as were several columnists including those at the Chicago Tribune, ESPN.com, FoxSports.com and Detroit Free Press. Among the descriptions used were heartless and cutthroat.
Having always been known for speaking his mind and wearing his fiery emotions like a badge of hot-headed honor, Harbaugh has brought that same fire to the recruiting process since he returned to the college game to coach his alma mater.
“Not everybody has his energy. I think he certainly raises the bar and sets the precedent,” ESPN national recruiting analyst Craig Haubert said. “He’s changing the game a little bit and some coaches might have to look at what they do and adjust to what he’s doing. You can’t change who you are, but he might have forced them to change their approach a little bit.”
When four-star Loyola (Los Angeles) cornerback David Long committed to Michigan on ESPNU, he said it’s important for coaches to do what’s “natural” for them, and that’s what Harbaugh’s done. Harbaugh has not shied away from his tactics, or even who he is as a person. He’s profoundly proud of both.
Last week, Harbaugh defended his recruiting “meritocracy,” although he is not allowed to address specifics regarding any players.
“We’re going to bring the finest student-athletes and character that we can to the University of Michigan,” Harbaugh told reporters after the introduction of Warde Manuel as Michigan’s new athletic director Friday.
“They’ve got to continue to perform when there’s early commitments — in the classroom, on the field and as a citizen in the community,” he said, according to The Detroit Free Press. “That’s how we’re going about it. I don’t hide from that at all and I won’t. That’s what we demand.”
Not only will he look to bring some of the best players to campus, he’s bringing the biggest celebrities as well. At the university’s “Signing with the Stars” event, sponsored in part by The Players’ Tribune, Michigan men Tom Brady and Derek Jeter will be on hand, alongside former professional wrestler Ric Flair.
Harbaugh has spent a lot of time in Ann Arbor, and he documented that time in a recent post on The Players’ Tribune. He credited his father, longtime college football coach Jack Harbaugh, for giving him the competitive edge that he brings to his everyday life. More than that, he credited the town, not the university, and everything that it taught him about life, and football.
“A lot of people outside of Michigan asked me why I decided to make that third move to Ann Arbor. It’s pretty simple: I love football. I love coaching. I love Michigan. And for me, there’s no better place for those three things than right here in Ann Arbor.” — Jim Harbaugh, via The Players’ Tribune.
Michigan has 25 commitments in its class with seven early enrollees, including highly regarded quarterback Brandon Peters (Avon, Ind.) and running back Kareem Walker (DePaul Catholic; Wayne, N.J.). The Wolverines also are thought to be the leader for No. 1 overall recruit Rashan Gary, a defensive tackle from Paramus (N.J.) Catholic.
Harbaugh also has shown a desire to spread the Michigan recruiting footprint, especially to the south. Michigan has six commits from Florida players led by linebacker Devin Bush Jr., two from Alabama, one from Georgia. He also has a commitment from Long from Southern California.
That only one Michigan commit — Detroit Cass Tech guard Michael Onwenu — is from the state hasn’t been lost on his rivals at Michigan State. During his annual presentation to at the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association clinic, Spartans coach Mark Dantonio ended his remarks with this: “Our success is tied to the players in this state. There’s no question in my mind. I think it’s the backbone of who we are.” Harbaugh, who attended the event last year, did not make the trip this year.
For Harbaugh, it’s all part of business. He’s adamant about bringing the best athletes to Ann Arbor, and he’s shown he’ll do what he needs to in order to win.
It’s that thought process and his “eccentricities” that separate Harbaugh from other coaches, says Rivals national recruiting director Mike Farrell.
“I don’t think college head coaches want to do sleepovers and climb trees. I think it’s their worst nightmare,” Farrell said. “Harbaugh is a guy whether eccentric or planned — and I don’t know which — will ingeniously come up with ways to attract attention and become polarizing.”
“As a polarizing individual, you get more attention than if you’re a bland, vanilla guy. There’s a method to his madness.”
Though Farrell understands his process, he definitely doesn’t support it, saying the concept of sleeping over at a recruit’s house is not only “inappropriate” and “imposing,” but also “ridiculous.”
On the flip side, 247Sports’ director of scouting Barton Simmons said Harbaugh is smart enough to feel out if a family would be receptive to such a visit.
“His personality is a football coach. I don’t think by nature he’s a crazy headline grabber,” said Simmons. “I think he’s doing this because he knows it’s smart. Where a line needs to be drawn, he knows where to draw it. He’s smart enough to understand recruiting is its own beast and he’s learned to embrace it.”
Recruiting is a never-ending job for college coaches, and Simmons praised Harbaugh’s ability to embrace the zaniness of the process while keeping Michigan’s elite brand in the national spotlight.
“Every cycle there’s a new set of kids and I think Michigan has done an excellent job of finding creative ways to get their attention and their eyes,” Simmons said. “With every tweet and every story Jim Harbaugh produces around his recruitment, it’s just getting his program more in the consciousness of a national group of recruits.”
“Recruiting is all about relationships,” added Haubert, “and eventually who you really are will come through.”
Harbaugh’s recruiting efforts have been successful in his short time at Michigan. In a college football world that requires adapting and changing — did you ever think you’d see Nick Saban do “The Wobble”? — will other prominent coaches follow suit?
“You can be successful recruiting in a number of ways, but I don’t think guys like (Urban) Meyer or (Nick) Saban will feel pressure to change their philosophy,” Simmons said. “While I don’t think people will copy his style, I think he’s going to force everyone to up their game nationally.
Contributing: Josh Barnett, USA TODAY High School Sports