Michigan's practices at IMG raise eyebrows, hackles

A spring trip to IMG is within the rules, but southern schools stew.
Published February 29 2016
Updated March 1 2016

BRADENTON — If there's one thing Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh's Twitter feed showed, it's that he knows his actions are upsetting the SEC.

And if there's one thing Harbaugh made clear Monday after his Wolverines opened spring practice under blue skies at IMG Academy, it's that he doesn't understand why — nor does he care.

"No," Harbaugh said when asked if he cares that other coaches are bothered. "You got your quote? You got your headline now?"

Harbaugh has attracted plenty of those during the offseason — many related to his decision to hold four practices during spring break, 1,200 miles from campus and in the heart of one of the country's biggest recruiting hotbeds.

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey told CBS Sports that his league asked the NCAA's football oversight committee to look into Michigan's practice, citing a concern about depriving students of spring break.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart said the Wolverines were looking to gain a competitive advantage, one the NCAA would eventually eliminate.

"It's a Pandora's Box of what it's going to get into, obviously," Smart said, according to the Macon Telegraph.

"If the Georgia coach is implying any intent on our part to break rules," Harbaugh responded via Twitter, "he is barking up the wrong tree."

Mascot metaphors aside, Michigan had plenty of incentives to head south for spring practice, starting with the weather. It was 73 degrees and sunny during Monday's practice; it's expected to snow today in Ann Arbor, Mich.

The Wolverines' schedule features optional team-bonding activities, including a trip to the beach, a screening of Remember the Titans and Wednesday's Pirates-Tigers spring training game (with Harbaugh as the guest first-base coach).

"Team building," Harbaugh said. "Team development. Everybody getting to know each other better."

Left unspoken was how parking two maize-and-blue tractor trailers at a booming prep football factory might help the next wave of blue-chip talents get to know Michigan, albeit from a distance.

IMG's roster features 14 of Florida's top 100 juniors, including five-star linebacker Dylan Moses, who was on the cover of ESPN The Magazine at age 15. The talent level is so high that Tennessee offered scholarships to 20 players last week.

Though NCAA rules prohibit recruits from attending any of Michigan's first three sessions, Friday's practice is open to anyone. The 5 p.m. start time is late enough for some high schoolers to stop by after class, as Hillsborough High's four-star defensive end, Zachary Carter, plans to do.

Harbaugh's move exposes the program with the most wins in college football history to as many as 22 four- or five-star recruits who live within a two hours' drive of IMG. That's more than triple the number of blue-chip prospects in the entire state of Michigan (seven).

Harbaugh said he doesn't know if the trip provides a recruiting advantage, but at least one of the local prospects he's targeting understands why the SEC is upset.

"I would be disappointed, too, probably frustrated," said CJ Cotman, a four-star running back from Clearwater Central Catholic. "It's a lot for them to come down here to this environment, to see them practice and talk to Jim Harbaugh. It's a big deal."

The SEC has a reason to worry: A successful Big Ten infiltration of Florida could damage the conference.

A decade ago, the SEC and ACC landed 24 of state's top 25 recruits; the Big Ten signed only four of the Florida's top 100 prospects. This February, the Big Ten took 10 of the state's top 100 talents, including four who signed with Michigan. Ohio State and former Gators coach Urban Meyer plucked three of Florida's top 25 prospects, including five-star defensive end Nick Bosa. Five Floridians were on the Buckeyes' 2014 national championship roster.

To boost their Southern profile, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State all held satellite recruiting camps in Florida last year. The Buckeyes are reportedly considering another in Jacksonville this summer.

But Harbaugh's ploy is the latest, and most extreme, example. Judging by the month-long backlash and Monday's buzz — ESPN personality Dick Vitale stopped by and posed for pictures in a Michigan cap — the tactic seems to be working.

"You try to make it look easy," Harbaugh said. "…Try to pull it off like it's easy to do. So far, so good."

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.