Harbaugh Escalates The College Football Arms Race

Jim Harbaugh is ruffling feathers again in SEC country. This time it’s over the Michigan coach’s decision to hold part of spring practice at Florida’s IMG Academy, a high school powerhouse. Harbaugh is clearly angling for exposure to recruits in the South and the SEC is just as clearly mad about it, making threats to try and block it.

A big part of me likes this move. Mainly because I like things that ruffle SEC feathers. If the Midwest had a disproportionate amount of the nation’s recruits, there’s no doubt that Alabama would be taking every step, including ones like these, to raise their profile in that region.

But a bigger part of me has concerns about it. It’s not about anything Michigan and Harbaugh is doing. They’re doing what any other program with the resources to pull it off would be doing, and it’s enhancing their brand in a talent-rich part of the country. But I guess that’s the problem. We know everyone else would be doing it, because big-time college football has turned into an arms race—it’s more about the battle of the brands than the battle on the field.

I understand that college football has always been a business and to a very large degree it’s necessary that act as one. The programs need money to function. The profits from the programs have to fund other athletics that don’t generate revenue. That means you need to win and that means needing to invest in innovative ideas like a portion of spring practice in Florida.

But shouldn’t college football also be about keeping the business side of things in perspective and maybe under some limitations? Spring practice was intended to be a way to get some extra workout time in and let coaches get a head start looking at their new rosters for the fall. Does it have to become a traveling show?

We could ask this question about countless other changes in college football. Was it really necessary for every conference to restructure themselves to get the best possible TV package? Do we really need to play 12 games in a season that now includes conference championship games and an extra national championship game on the back end? Do we really need to turn the February day that recruits sign their letters of intent into a virtual national sports holiday?

All of these things (except for the idiocy of National Signing Day) have justification when you look at them individually. So does Michigan holding spring practice in Florida. Taken together, they provide a snapshot look at a sport that’s no longer making any pretense at being about college athletics and is a full-scale business.

That begs the question—if it’s just about business, why don’t we all just watch the NFL? The quality of play is better and there’s no hypocritical commercials from the NCAA or the conferences talking about the greatness of their student-athletes and showing a clip of a swimmer or pole vaulter, as though the conferences actually gave a hoot about those sports.

What if Michigan took the money they’re going to spend housing an entire team in Florida for four days and used it to fund a youth football league in the troubled areas of Detroit (which these days is about all of Detroit I guess)? Paying for basic things like shoulder pads and helmets make costs prohibitive in the inner cities. A big-time athletic program like Michigan’s could do it with money marked for petty cash and probably provide a nice rec center where the kids could congregate and stay out of trouble.

And so I’m not picking on the Wolverines—who have traditionally run a clean program and done things the right way–what if Ohio State did the same thing in Cleveland, Penn State in Philadelphia, USC in Los Angeles, and…well, you get the picture.

College football would making itself visible to the next generation of football talent. They’d be expanding the talent pool by getting kids involved who might otherwise slip through the cracks. Most important, they’d be doing something more worthwhile then winning the battle for a national championship.