The method behind Jim Harbaugh’s Twitter madness

Jim_Harbaugh_Head_Coach_University_of_MichiganPhoto by Eric Upchurch/Wikipedia Commons

By MIKE HERNDON

It’s been 145 days since the last college football season ended and it’ll be another 84 days before the next season begins. The NFL draft is over and the conference media days are still over a month away. So all there is for a college football fan to do, unless they can immerse themselves in the NBA, NHL or college baseball or softball, is follow the rumors of transfers, check the police reports, cringe at the Baylor report and the tone-deafness of Mississippi State in its wake, and wait for the coaches to start sniping at each other.

Fortunately, Jim Harbaugh is back.

After building Stanford’s program nearly from the ground up and leading the San Francisco 49ers to a Super Bowl appearance before his schtick wore thin, Harbaugh is trying to lead his alma mater back to its past glory. He got off to a good start with a 10-3 record in his first season, but it’s @CoachJim4UM that’s really grabbing the headlines.

Harbaugh is nearly as fond of Twitter feuds as Donald Trump and Lil B The Based God. He’s taken swipes at Georgia’s Kirby Smart and Tennessee’s Butch Jones, and leveled this supreme bit of sarcasm at Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith after a perceived slight a couple months ago: “Good to see Director Smith being relevant again after the tattoo fiasco. Welcome back!”

Now he’s picked a fight with Nick Saban over satellite caps. Get the popcorn.

An agitated Saban railed against the camps – which have become Harbaugh’s preferred way to spend summer vacation — during a session with reporters at the SEC spring meetings this week. They open the way for third-party people to get involved in the recruiting process, he said, which could turn college football recruiting into something that looks a lot more like basketball, with its heavy and oft-criticized AAU influence.

What’s amazing to me,” Saban said, as reported by AL.com, “is somebody didn’t stand up and say: Here’s going to be the unintended consequences of what you all are doing.”

Within hours, Harbaugh fired back with a tweet: “‘Amazing’ to me — Alabama broke NCAA rules & now their HC is lecturing us on the possibility of rules being broken at camps. Truly ‘amazing.'”

And with that, the internet was broken.

Harbaugh — who later doubled down and called Saban’s comments “hypocritical” — clearly isn’t interested in being the most popular guy at the coaching convention. But there may be a method to his thin-skinned madness — and oddly enough, it may be a page from the playbook over one of Saban’s current assistants.

The year was 2009 and Lane Kiffin had been hired to replace Phil Fulmer at Tennessee, a program that had been nationally prominent but whose recruiting base was squeezed by competitors in more talent-rich states surrounding him. The only way the Vols could compete in the SEC, with talent-rich Georgia and Florida in the same division and emerging national power Alabama on the schedule every year, was to recruit nationally. There isn’t enough talent in the state of Tennessee on a yearly basis to compete.

And how to draw the eyes of recruits across the nation to Knoxville? Take advantage of the media’s insatiable thirst for controversy to keep your name – and that of your program – in the headlines. Kiffin, now Saban’s offensive coordinator at Alabama, turned himself into a lightning rod and the Vols brought in a star-studded recruiting class that included the top-rated player in the country, Bryce Brown.

“We had to create national momentum immediately,” Kiffin said then. “I haven’t loved having to do it. But it needed to be done, in my opinion, for us to get where we needed to be.”

Say what you will about his abilities as a head coach – his mediocre record there speaks for itself– but Kiffin’s plan worked on the recruiting trail.

Now comes Harbaugh, who finds himself in a not-dissimilar situation. Michigan is a traditional national power that has fallen into mediocrity and finds itself surpassed by not only archrival Ohio State, but also in-state rival Michigan State. The Wolverines have traditionally recruited throughout the Midwest and, to varying degrees, the nation. But Harbaugh sees a need to revive the brand nationally.

How do do that? Face-to-face exposure is one facet of the plan, which is why Harbaugh never met a satellite camp he didn’t like — even in Australia or Samoa. Media exposure is another, which is where the Kiffenesque brashness and all the snarkiness on social media come into play.

Call him names if you want – and there are plenty that probably apply – but don’t think Harbaugh’s just doing it to be a jerk. As Kiffin showed seven years ago, even arrogance and obnoxiousness can be a means to an end.



Categories: College football

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