For the second straight April, Michigan will conclude its spring preparation in Europe. The Wolverines are visiting France to close out the month, coach Jim Harbaugh announced in February, a junket focused on Paris and Normandy.
Last year, Michigan wrapped up spring practices with three days of drills in Rome, a journey that saw them attend an opera, train as gladiators, visit the Colosseum and take a VIP tour of Vatican City. Harbaugh received a personal audience with Pope Francis, to whom he presented a Wolverines football helmet and a customized pair of Michigan Jumpmans.
But given the 8-5 season and recruiting disappointments that came in the months after that historic visit, some Wolverines fans are asking if the style part of the Harbaugh equation is starting outweigh the substance. Former Michigan and NFL running back Chris Howard and Land of 10 writer-columnist Sean Keeler are wondering the same thing …
Q: ARE THESE EUROPEAN TOURS STARTING TO DO MORE HARM THAN GOOD FOR MICHIGAN FOOTBALL AND JIM HARBAUGH?
CHRIS HOWARD: NO
I usually wear Michigan apparel when I’m working out or running errands on the weekends, as a proud alumnus should. When people see the maize Block M on my blue shirt, it spawns a variety of reactions and comments. Sometimes I’m greeted with a “Go Blue!” or a “Go Bucks!” Sometimes I get a, “Do you think Harbaugh gets it done?” or “Do you think Harbaugh leaves for the NFL?” or “What do you think about the optics of the team going over to Europe again?” or “Aren’t his antics wearing thin?”
The “Go Bucks,” while annoying, I just chalk up as good rivalry banter. When posed with the NFL question, I take a deep breath, try not to give them my are-you-serious glare and deliver an original answer. Neither happens. The assumption that a trip overseas designed with the intent of bringing a team together while providing a once-in-a-lifetime experience could be viewed by me as bad optics or a distraction makes me wish that I would’ve worn a neutral colored shirt that day.
However, the one about the antics truly tests my patience. I understand these questions carry no malicious intent — people just want to know what a former player thinks of the current state of the program. The things that I take away from questions like this:
One, the individual and I have a different understanding of the need to have a competitive advantage in the arms race for the top college football athletes. Two, he or she doesn’t understand how marred the Michigan football program was upon Harbaugh’s arrival. Three, the importance for college athletes to have an experience outside of sports. I know this may seem like a shock, but we’re not just there to play football and to entertain you. At least that’s what the NCAA would like for us to believe.
There is so much to unpack with the antics question. It reminds me of a couple of years ago when Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith was asked what he thought about the Wolverines’ trip to Florida over spring break to have part of spring practice at IMG Academy. He said, “If we were jump starting our program, I’d probably try to do that too.”
The comment was taken as shot directed at Harbaugh and Michigan, but I personally found no fault with Smith’s comments. I thought he was spot-on with his assessment. The Michigan football program was on life support and absolutely needed to be revived.
Even Michigan State found time to take a jab at Harbaugh and his staff by suggesting all the Wolverines had to sell recruits on was hope and hype.
And they were right also.
This is a new era of college athletics, where flash and trendiness are just as valued as tradition. You’ve gotta have a little bit of all three. As storied a program as Michigan’s is, it wasn’t the place big-time recruits wanted to be. Harbaugh set out to make Michigan the place to be, and it has worked. Armed with his quirkiness and enthusiasm unknown to mankind, Harbaugh was able to transform the program from a program recruits knew nothing about to a program recruits wanted to know more about. A pair of top-10 recruiting classes were the results. His antics paid off in that regard.
I think Harbaugh’s approach of reintroducing Michigan to the college football world via flashy videos, graphics, celebrity endorsements, satellite camps, etc., was a necessity. It didn’t sit well with the powers that be, but who cares what they think? Michigan needed to be rebranded, it needed to go on a world tour, it needed every headline it could get.
College sports today are an arms race. Millions of dollars are being spent on state-of-the-art facilities to attract the top prospects in the country. Positions such as analyst and quality control personnel increasingly have become another tool for elite college football programs looking for that special edge — some way, somehow.
You need an edge if you’re going to compete with the big dogs of college football. Harbaugh Mania allowed the Wolverines to jump in the race. Back-to-back 10-win seasons provided them with an upward trajectory in the national discussion.
Now after a disappointing 2017 season, a lackluster finish to the 2018 recruiting class, tweaks to the staff and some much-needed self-evaluation, it’s been less about making a splash and more about needing to make an impact. Harbaugh really hasn’t been in the news as much. No shirtless games of touch football with the kids. Outside of the upcoming trip to France, Harbaugh and his team have had a relatively quiet spring. Now all he needs to do is just win!
Harbaugh doing unconventional things to improve his team receives a ton of criticism. I get it. He makes a lot of money, he’s abrasive and he’s just not your cup of tea. Maybe his taking his team on a once-in-a-lifetime bonding trip overseas, allowing his team to be featured on an Amazon Prime series that shows the ups and downs of their season, and inviting famous alumni to give inspirational speeches to his team is wearing thin on you. But other programs under federal investigation, programs where the head coaches get into motorcycle accidents with their mistresses and the players are arrested for marijuana and gun charges regularly isn’t?
There are far more egregious things happening in college football other than Harbaugh’s antics. Come on, man!