Even in the off season, Jim Harbaugh is a lightning rod.
He has everyone talking, talking about his top-five recruiting class, talking about his unorthodox methods — from sleeping over at recruits’ homes to attending classes with them to sending one a homemade cake to climbing a tree to impress another — and talking, according to some critics, about his bailing on early commitments because better players became available.
“He’s one of the preeminent personalities in college football,” Scout.com recruiting analyst Brian Dohn said in a phone interview.
Approaching his first full recruiting cycle, Harbaugh has Michigan close to the top of most lists, with highly rated prospects expected to put pen to paper on Wednesday, National Signing Day, from one coast to the other.
Of late, the 52-year-old Harbaugh has been criticized for the amount of players — five — who have decommitted in the last week. There is only one day a prospect can sign. Verbal commitments are non-binding, for players and coaches. Kids will often continue to take visits, despite committing to a school. One of the players who decommitted, three-star defensive tackle Rashad Weaver of Florida, said in a statement on Twitter on Monday, the staff stopped reaching out to him and he was told by Harbaugh there was a 50/50 chance he would have a scholarship for him on signing day.
Around that time, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio and recruiting coordinator Curtis Blackwell both tweeted: “The righteous shall prevail,” though Dantonio quickly deleted it.
Harbaugh talked to Michigan reporters this week, saying “it’s a meritocracy,” meaning early commits have to continue to perform on the field and in the classroom to validate their scholarship.
“I don’t hide from that at all and I won’t,” Harbaugh said. “That’s what we demand.”
Dohn and Mike Farrell, Rivals.com’s national recruiting analyst, said the system needs to be fixed by creating an early signing period, as exists in college basketball. After all, this has been going on for years, at a number of different schools.
“Pete Carroll ran kids off. Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher [did too],” Farrell said. “Every great coach has had to back off a commitment — whether for academic reasons, character reasons, injury reasons, they weren’t developing properly. I’ve seen 50 percent of classes wind up elsewhere. It’s all coming at the end of the cycle, which is leading to criticism. It’s the timing.
“But everybody pays attention to recruiting the last three weeks [before signing day]. Coaches can’t comment on a kid, so you’re only going to hear one side of the story.”
Harbaugh’s recruiting style also has come into question. He went to class with California four-star defensive tackle Boss Tagaloa, and slept over at Arizona four-star defensive end Connor Murphy’s home. Neither player has committed to Michigan, however, or is expected to sign with the Wolverines. Harbaugh also spent the night with Quinn Nordin, the top-ranked kicker in the country, and slept in the guest room. They talked until 2 a.m., and had pancakes the next morning with the entire family. Harbaugh wanted to go sledding in the Nordin’s backyard, but they didn’t have time before getting to school.
“He’s willing to do anything to get a recruit on board,” said Nordin, who has decommitted from Penn State and has Michigan in his final five. “He wants to win and that’s what it’s about.
“It got to show me who he was a person and what his core values are.”
Some feel uncomfortable with the practice of middle-aged football coach staying over a recruit’s home. One college coach, speaking on a condition of anonymity, said he never would do it, and doesn’t expect any others to follow.
Farrell said he thinks “it’s ridiculous,” and said he believes the NCAA will put a stop to it. If that doesn’t happen, however, Dohn expects other coaches to mimic Harbaugh, whether it is staying over a player’s home or joining them in class.
“To me, he’s setting the bar for people,” Dohn said. “He’s creative. These are kids who are impressionable. Kids are thinking, ‘This is how much this guy wants me to play at his school.’ Everybody looks at it as going to class or sleeping over. It’s building a relationship. He’s doing it in a way people haven’t done it before.”
Harbaugh’s staff has done its best work in New Jersey, already securing four of the state’s top-eight prospects — highlighted by early enrollee Kareem Walker of DePaul Catholic, the sixth-ranked running back in the country, according to Rivals.com, who was once committed to Ohio State — and could wind up with the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect, defensive tackle Rashan Gary of Paramus Catholic.
There are a variety of reasons for his success in the Garden State, from the presence of former Paramus Catholic coach Chris Partridge, Michigan’s linebackers coach, to rising junior defensive back Jabrill Peppers, a two-time state champion who grew up with Walker and attended the same high school as Gary.
“They’re like bulldogs,” DePaul Catholic associate head coach Brian Murray said. “They want a guy, they’re coming after him. If you’re working 20 hours a week, they’re working 24.”
The biggest takeaway, to those who have come across Harbaugh, is how personable he is. He has been to the highest level of football — playing in an AFC Championship game and coaching in a Super Bowl — and yet, he is able to connect with kids, coaches and their parents. The day after getting the job, Harbaugh placed a phone call to Brad Hawkins Sr., whose son Brad Jr. of Camden High School is one of New Jersey’s top wide receivers and will sign with Michigan on Wednesday.
“We were on the phone for exactly 27 minutes. For 22 minutes, he talked to me about life and school, didn’t mention football at all,” Hawkins Sr. said. “Everything about the conversations with him was just different [from other coaches].”
Lost among his quirky recruiting practices and whether or not he has run kids off for more talented ones is what he already has accomplished at Michigan in a little bit over a year. On the field, he turned the program from a laughingstock the season before his arrival into one of the best teams in the Big Ten, and now he may be adding the No. 1 recruiting class in the country.
So far, he has been worth every bit of the seven-year contract that pays him roughly $5 million annually — even when games aren’t being played.