BRADENTON — Jim Harbaugh's favorite piece of criticism wasn't when an entire conference tried to stop his spring break trip, or when three rival college football coaches tried to work a lunch date into their attempts to crash his open practice.
The Michigan coach loved it when someone compared his offseason — from last month's lavish signing-with-the-stars recruiting ceremony to last week's four-practice trip to IMG Academy — to a circus. For a man who grew up saving his pennies when the three-ring show came to town, Harbaugh took it as a compliment.
"Every circus I ever went to, I always felt really great about it, and it was a lot of fun," Harbaugh, 52, said. "That's the way I feel about this. It was much anticipated, and it was a heck of a lot of fun."
Make no mistake. The Wolverines' spring break trip here was a circus, and Friday night's open practice was the grand finale.
Michigan's fight song blared over a portable stereo before more than 5,000 fans entered IMG Academy Field to watch glorified workouts for a program whose campus lies 1,200 miles away. One of them, Kyle Davis, a junior at Madonna University near Detriot, tried to hand Harbaugh his resume. Naturally, Davis was wearing khaki pants — Harbaugh's trademark.
Boos flew at the lone fan who wore an Ohio State shirt, and the stands erupted when Harbaugh took the field. He responded by waving his cap to the maize and blue crowd as if he were Derek Jeter, one of the stars who attended that over-the-top signing day ceremony.
"He's just different," defensive tackle Maurice Hurst said of his coach. "He's always doing something different, finding something new."
And usually upsetting a rival or two along the way.
The SEC asked the NCAA to look into Michigan's new practice. Then Arkansas coach Bret Bielema tweeted that he might trek down to IMG to watch the open practice, before learning that the NCAA wouldn't allow it. When Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio asked Bielema to lunch, Tennessee's Butch Jones asked to come, too.
"Suggestion to my Rocky Top colleague," Harbaugh tweeted, "rather than lunch in Florida you might spend your time and focus attending to your present team."
That present team is under fire for a Title IX lawsuit. The coaches' chitchat stopped after that.
With no more Twitter snark, all that was left was four days of winged helmets under blue skies for a team with legitimate hopes to spend next January 50 miles northeast at Raymond James Stadium in the national title game.
The Wolverines continued to let their quarterback battle play out among Shane Morris, Wilton Speight and Houston transfer John O'Korn. Do-it-all defender Jabrill Peppers shined after moving from safety to linebacker, and coaches are still trying to figure out where to plug former East Lake High star Mason Cole into the offensive line.
But schemes and lineups were only one part of Michigan's trip. Harbaugh said the team accomplished its goal of growing closer together. Running back Drake Johnson said he didn't feel like he missed out on spring break because he participated in an intense pingpong tournament and devoured chicken wings at the beach — the kinds of things he would have done on his own.
"Normally we go on spring break together with a bunch of teammates," Hurst said. "Now we get to come all together, as a full unit."
While that bonding could show this season, some long-term effects of Michigan's trip might not be known until the next wave of recruits sign their letters of intent.
Announcements over the speakers and on the jumbotron reminded prospects that coaches couldn't interact with them. A guard at the fieldhouse door prohibited recruits from using its restroom, lest they bump into someone from Michigan and violate NCAA rules.
Harbaugh had to check with a compliance official to see if he could sign autographs on his way to the locker room (he couldn't) … even though IMG's top recruit, five-star linebacker Dylan Moses, was doling out plenty of them to gushing Wolverine fans.
Nonetheless, the recruiting benefits were obvious. Moses and more than a dozen other blue-chip prospects got an up-close view of the program that is college football's all-time victories leader. Clearwater Central Catholic four-star running back CJ Cotman said he was impressed by the atmosphere for a routine spring practice.
"I wanted to see this feeling," said Cotman, who is strongly considering the Wolverines. "See how it is. See what they do."
And what they do, above all, is innovate. It's unclear whether the NCAA will close the loopholes that allowed for this trip, but Harbaugh hopes they don't.
"Exceeded expectations," he said. "I would recommend this to other football programs. I'd recommend it to us, to do it again."
For Michigan's ringmaster, the circus was worth every penny.
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected]. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.