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Playing it coy, Harbaugh wins perception battle

Drew Sharp Detroit Free Press

BRADENTON, Fla. – The benefits for practicing in sunny Florida are pretty obvious. It’s warm. It’s outdoors. It’s a happy escape from a northern winter’s last cold breaths.

That was enough for Jim Harbaugh, who brought his football team into the Southeastern Conference’s talent-rich backyard for the first week of Michigan’s spring football practice. But Harbaugh couldn’t escape the third degree following the Wolverines’ first practice Monday.

Was there an ulterior recruiting motive to this unprecedented trip that irritated SEC officials and coaches?

“I don’t know if there is one,” he deadpanned, scratching his face as if confused by the question.

He insisted he didn’t understand why anyone would be upset, but that hadn’t stopped him from engaging in a sometimes childish social media war with those critics over the past couple weeks. That only added fury to the fire.

When asked if he cared whether other coaches were ticked off by his Florida appearance, Harbaugh brusquely responded, “No.”

“You got your quote?” he asked. “You got your headline now?”

The headline would be: Much Ado About Nothing.

Harbaugh’s sold this week as balancing football, fun and education. The players got some beach time Monday afternoon following practice. They’ll attend the Tigers’ exhibition game Wednesday here against Pittsburgh. They’ll also have full access to the IMG recreational facilities during their stay. They planned to watch the movie “Remember the Titans” Monday night in a moment of team bonding. Harbaugh has also arranged some guest speakers for them.

But calling this a regular student spring break from academics remains a reach. Practice schedules were juggled – moving workout times up a week – enabling the players to have an off week from football later in which they can concentrate on spring exams.

This is a football work retreat, plain and simple. Just call it what it is and move on.

The nonsensical social media back-and-forth wasn’t a good look for all parties involved. Molders of young men shouldn’t so easily fall prey to the pitfalls of the context-challenged Twittersphere. If that’s indeed the most popular venue for teenaged recruits to get their information, then isn’t there a responsibility either to elevate the level of discourse from snarky pettiness or to say nothing at all?

Harbaugh was smartly reserved Monday. There was no reason to tweak his critics further because he already had won the perception battle.

Harbaugh tried to draw a parallel with the Michigan men’s tennis team practicing at the same IMG facility this week. But he failed to mention that the week-long Florida trip was part of the tennis team’s regular-season schedule.

NCAA president Dr. Mark Emmert has already conveyed his reservations about U-M’s spring break trip. Though no rules were broken, it doesn’t mean future rules won’t be changed to avoid another battle in the ever-growing college football arms race.

Harbaugh added that he didn’t know why the NCAA would change its policy.

There likely were some NCAA moles skulking about the practice fields Monday, making sure during this dead recruiting period there was no contact between Michigan and any of the many top-drawer recruits who attend IMG. The lone open practice will be the finale at IMG Academy Field, across the road from where the Wolverines worked out. High school coaches can bring their players. According to a U-M official, any college head coach can attend as well.

“From a macro standpoint, this probably isn’t that big of a deal,” said Bradenton Christian athletic director and head football coach Allan Gerber. “But from a micro standpoint, this is probably something important to some players who would like their head coach to be a little more approachable. Football coaches today can’t be as distant as they once were, sitting up there in their ivory towers.”

Gerber was one of only a handful of local high school coaches who watched the six hours of practice as Harbaugh staggered two four-hour sessions among his players. The third and fourth stringers practiced from 8 a.m. to noon; the first and second units worked from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“This is great exposure for Michigan,” Gerber said, “not that they really need it.”

But Gerber agreed with Harbaugh in that he doesn’t think there’s any pronounced recruiting advantage for Michigan.

“It’s like with anything that’s new and uncharted,” he said. “There’s probably more fear than what there needs to be. It’s something different. Something creative. Once everything calms down, people will start wondering why everybody made a big fuss.”

Whether it was indoors in chilly Ann Arbor, Mich., or outdoors in balmy Florida, it was a typical first day of spring practice. Rust has no geographical preference. Quarterbacking was inconsistent. Newcomers hoping to make a good impression struggled.

But Michigan got a symbolic win simply because it was here.

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