FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — They went back and forth for an hour, comparing scars, a pair of old sailors swapping fish tales.
“I picked you off a few times,” Patrick Surtain said.
“Yeah, you probably did,” Jim Harbaugh replied.
Surtain has three Pro Bowls on his ledger to Harbaugh’s one, and once the latter put his feet up on the desk at the former’s office at the American Heritage School and started talking shop, it was 1998 all over again.
“He just has a gift,” Surtain, varsity football coach at American Heritage School in Plantation, Fla., and a damn fine NFL cornerback in his day, said of Harbaugh, Michigan’s venerated coach and pretty fair NFL quarterback in his. “He just has that charisma. He’s played the game. He’s played the game at a high level, so he kind of knows what athletes are going through … he appeals to every aspect of the athlete.
“Now Michigan (was) a play away from being the (Playoff) final four. Guys see where the program is headed.”
And it ain’t bragging, as Muhammad Ali once opined, if you can back it up. In January, the Wolverines stomped Florida in Orlando by 34 points. In their previous two Sunshine State bowls, Big Blue had been outscored by an average margin of 43-21.
June is for bragging.
December is for backing it the hell up.
‘Kids who don’t watch college football, they know about Harbaugh’
That’s what the Orange Bowl means. It’s what beating Florida State come Friday night means, and the larger the margin, the stronger the point. It’s about drawing a line underneath the box score, a line in the sand.
“Kids who don’t watch college football, they know about Harbaugh,” said Corey Bender, a Florida-based recruiting analyst with Scout.com. “Because Harbaugh does a great job getting the headlines. Kids who don’t care about college football care about Harbaugh.”
There is no substitute for face time, especially when your face is plastered all over Twitter. This past March, Harbaugh opened spring practice in Bradenton, Fla., just south of Tampa. In June, he held satellite camps at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale and at Nova Southeastern University in nearby Davie.
He’s a fixture of local conversation even when he’s not here (which is the point), even if much of the discussion is through gnashing teeth (which isn’t). Captain Comeback’s mitts are everywhere in the Sunshine State now, a settee that feels like part of the furniture, partly by design and partly as a cunning end-around of the Rubik’s cube that serves as the NCAA rulebook.
Spring ball kicked off at IMG Academy in Bradenton, where nine of the country’s top 150 players happened to attend school. IMG’s roster included 14 of Florida’s top 100 juniors. If you can’t bring the market to your kiosk, bring your kiosk to the market.
“For coach Harbaugh and IMG, to see the prospects there and for people to meet them (was a big deal),” Seminoles quarterback Deondre Francois, an IMG alum, said Wednesday morning. “He’s a great guy, very experienced, a great coach, and his resume says it all.
“That was a great move by them. They had everything that you need to prepare for this.”
‘It’s kind of like a connection’
Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State all held satellite camps in Florida in 2015, and the trickle-down effect is trickling faster, year by year. Of the top 30 in-state prospects for 2017 as ranked by Scout.com, six have already committed to either the Wolverines or Buckeyes — and a seventh, lineman Tedarrell Slaton out of American Heritage, lists Michigan among his top three options.
Among the recruiting class of 2011, only two of Scout’s top 30 Florida prospects signed with Big Ten schools; among the class of 2007, just three.
“(Harbaugh) is going to have success,” said Lawrence Dawsey, Florida State’s co-offensive coordinator and a Seminoles alum charged with helping to keep the kids home and the gates locked tight. “Harbaugh has had success everywhere he’s been. He came down here (and) did a great job recruiting this state. Pulling some guys (out of) here and some guys that we wanted.”
Including, most notably, freshman linebacker Devin Bush Jr. — a legacy grab, son of Devin Bush, a safety on the ‘Noles’ 1993 national champions. Devin the younger was one of three gets in the Class of ’16 from Flanagan High in Pembroke Pines, a trio that pushed the number of Floridians on the current Michigan roster to 11.
“When you get a whole bunch of guys from the same area, from the same state and they play for the same team, you’re kind of on the same page,” Bush Jr. said this week. “And you’re kind of on the same type of (wavelength). You can talk to them a certain type of way and they know, ‘Oh, this means this.’ It’s kind of like a connection.”
It’s kind of like a pipeline. One that’s gathering steam, despite expected consternation from collegiate coaches in the region.
“I have no problem whatsoever,” Dawsey said of the Wolverines’ offseason Florida exploits. “It probably does (rankle) some.
“But if you’re Florida State, we don’t care about them, you just concentrate on what you do. You do what you do, you don’t have to worry about what everybody else is doing, because what we’re doing has been very successful and it’s working. So why do we have to change? If what we’re doing isn’t working, that’s when you make adjustments.”
After all, the Seminoles could use the same loopholes to set up satellite camps in, say, Toledo or Fort Wayne, if the mood struck them. It hasn’t.
“Why do it if you don’t have to?” Dawsey countered. “We don’t know the trends, (so) I can’t answer for right now. But if we can get them on campus, if we can sell our product, we don’t have to take our product on the road.”
The Wolverines kind of do, at least to get face time, warm-weather face time, with the kids who grow up inside the Waffle House bubble. Surtain expects Harbaugh to be back in the spring and summer again, and suspects that other northern schools might be hitching a ride on the comet’s tail.
“He’s a hard-nosed guy,” Surtain chuckled. “As a player, you want to play for that sort of player, a players’ coach … at the end of the day, the guys understand. That’s why he’s been successful everywhere he’s been.”
Because talk is cheap, and South Florida junkets aren’t. The swagger act plays better when the argument ends with the scoreboard.