As I write this, Jim Harbaugh has tweeted precisely 518 times, and not a damned thing about the 519th tweet could possibly surprise me. In the past week, Harbaugh has thrown some passive-aggressive shade at the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, posted multiple selfies/portraits with Kenny G and a photobombing Larry the Cable Guy at Pebble Beach and conjured a replica J.R.R. Tolkien quote in order to introduce a partisan blog post defending his attempts to nationalize Michigan’s recruiting tactics.
In other words, Jim Harbaugh is undeniably batshit. But this is not a performative celebrity engaging with a performative medium (see: West, Kanye); this is the real live Jim Harbaugh engaging with his fanbase, as only Jim Harbaugh knows how. One might argue that, say, Urban Meyer or Nick Saban are equally as competitive as Harbaugh, but Harbaugh is the weirdest competitive freak of his era. On this point, there is no dispute, not from those who find him a brilliant Machiavellian competitor and not from those who find him an unsavory obsessive douche. This was the deal the University of Michigan made when it hired him, and so far it is a brilliant success both on and off the field, but I have no idea how far he can take it before this brushfire he’s started begins to burn itself out of control.
That Harbaugh is essentially Randle McMurphy in a squarer hat has been established for quite some time, ever since Harbaugh began metaphorically napalming every bridge in the Bay Area on his way out the door in San Francisco. (I imagine Harbaugh himself would cop to this if he were under oath, or in the proper mood. Or he might just hurl a package of Sweet’N Low at my face.) This is Harbaugh’s genius; he attracts attention like no other college football coach, which is either utterly brilliant or patently gratuitous, depending on your point of view.
This month, Harbaugh aroused controversy by announcing that the Wolverines were going to spend the first week of spring practice – during the school’s spring break – at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. It was a blatant power play against the SEC, and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey swallowed the bait completely.
“Let’s draw a line and say, ‘That’s not appropriate,'” Sankey told CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd, to which Harbaugh replied with that ironically whiny tweet about whining. Sankey, in his response, was referring to the notion of college athletes having little free time as it is; Sankey was essentially saying that spring break should be off-limits for football practices, which is an admittedly hypocritical notion for the commissioner of the SEC, of all conferences, to be advancing. But Harbaugh, with one sly subtweet, managed to turn this into a free-speech issue. He managed to alter the conversation, to turn things in his favor.
There is, at least right now, no rule against Michigan practicing over spring break in Florida, and this is the momentum Harbaugh has been riding on since he took the Michigan job: He is going to stretch his recruiting angles to their limits. This is why, during signing day, he held a bizarre telethon-talk show-infomercial with celebrity guests that felt like a 12:53 a.m. Saturday Night Live sketch: Because he could. Because he is seeking to sell Michigan as a national football power, as a program that can recruit anyone, anywhere in the country.
Not surprisingly, given that Harbaugh is an undeniably brilliant football coach, this strategy is working. The Wolverines lured the nation’s No. 1 recruit, Rashan Gary, and one of the country’s best recruiting classes. But there are two underlying questions to consider here: The first is whether this can possibly be sustained, or whether Harbaugh will eventually burn himself out, as he did at Stanford and with the 49ers. What happens, say, if Michigan beats Ohio State and qualifies for the College Football Playoff next season and a top-tier NFL job looms on the horizon? What happens if Harbaugh doesn’t get something he specifically demands from the Michigan administration? What happens if the academics in Ann Arbor began complaining about the bills coming due?
And the second question surrounding Harbaugh is what all of this might mean for college football. Maybe, by essentially professionalizing the recruiting process, Harbaugh is dispensing with the pretense that college football is still an amateur sport. But here’s the thing: If you read beyond the headline of Sankey’s complaint, he has a legitimate point. A Pac-12 study last year revealed that athletes in the conference spent an average of 50 hours a week on their sport and were often “too exhausted to study effectively.” I have no idea if Sankey and his member schools are serious about exploring this idea, but this is the sort of concept on which the Big Ten should be leading the way.
“I’m not going to reduce what is an important conversation to some childhood use of Twitter,” Sankey said after hearing of Harbaugh’s “whining” tweet, which is a reasonable response to a batshit human being, but at least for now, it doesn’t matter. Jim Harbaugh wins because Jim Harbaugh is winning, and until that changes, he can do and say whatever the hell he wants.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb