Jim Harbaugh didn’t spend his summer vacation going to Disney World or at an overpriced beach rental in the Caribbean. After a successful first season as head coach of the Michigan Wolverines and a winter full of sleep-overs with recruits, he traveled deep into SEC country hosting satellite camps to attract top-tier southern talent to the Big House. It’s a rare thing to see a college football coach making himself a constant topic of national conversation during the summer, but this is Harbaugh we’re talking about. Sure, conference media days are usually good for a juicy quote or two, but they tend to quickly fade from the memories of all but the most dedicated fans who’d rather be outside and not thinking about autumn football.
Maybe Harbaugh’s antics only amused Michigan fans, maybe it’s a regional thing; whatever it is, the University of Alabama’s Nick Saban, among other SEC coaches, didn’t take kindly to the Michigan coach’s appearances across the SEC’s bailiwick, and Harbaugh could seem to care less. For all of Ohio State’s recent success under Urban Meyer, the epicenter of college football has been the Southeast for the last two decades (excepting USC’s brief period of dominance in the early aughts). Much as the popular narrative of the Midwest has been one of deindustrialization and economic decline, Midwestern college football is perceived to have slowly decayed from its previous heights. But this year something feels different. Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan State all have top 15 rankings going into the season and the expectations that come with recent success. As the season begins this week, it’s hard to escape the thought that Harbaugh’s summer travels were an attempt to forcibly reshape college football’s regional balance of power, through no less a method than direct invasion. Like Joseph Conrad before him, Harbaugh has forged into the belly of the beast, where all manner of Gators, Elephants, Tigers, Bulldogs and Seminoles reside.
Big-time college football’s spiritual heart firmly used to be the Midwest, Big Ten and Notre Dame country. The early Saturday afternoon national network game was the cathedral. Fans across the nation saw Desmond Howard and Elvis Grbac do battle against the likes of Rick Mirer and Jerome Bettis under the watchful eyes of Brent Musberger and Bob Griese on crisp, sweatered fall afternoons. In 1988 the infamous Notre Dame-Miami contest was dubbed “Catholics vs. Convicts” because of fighting before, during and after the game. That October midwestern afternoon Jimmy Johnson squared off against Lou Holtz, and the Irish won 31-30. The defining sounds of college football Saturdays were ringing renditions of Michigan’s “Hail to the Victors” and Notre Dame’s “Victory March.” But because of the tectonic shift in regional power of the last two decades, these have been supplanted by mass incantations of “Roll Tide!” and the analysis and conspiracy theories of Paul Finebaum’s callers.
Midwestern quarterbacks like Purdue’s Griese in the 1960s, Notre Dame’s Joe Montana, and Harbaugh himself were once held up as national college football icons. You could argue that former Wolverine Tom Brady is the last culturally significant midwestern college quarterback, and he’s from the Bay Area and a New England legend, his time in the middle of the country an afterthought. From the mid-1990s forward college football’s orbit shifted to the South, as national attention has become increasingly absorbed by southern stars like Michael Vick, the Manning brothers, reigning NFL MVP Cam Newton, and, yes, Tim Tebow. Saban’s career path itself has mirrored this trend, as he left Michigan State University in 1999 to coach at LSU and later Alabama.
It seems the Midwest’s premier programs are intent on decisively reversing this trend. Meyer’s Ohio State Buckeyes won the national title in 2014, and Michigan State has been a high-quality program under Mark D’Antonio. Midwestern programs have pumped significant talent into the NFL in recent years. In April’s NFL Draft, Michigan State, Notre Dame and Ohio State players were five of the first ten picks. Meyer has succeeded in funneling top-tier southern talent to his Buckeyes program. Notre Dame has had a recent resurgence under Coach Brian Kelly, though their alternate uniform combinations are increasingly cringe-worthy. Harbaugh, though, is developing a more disruptive modus operandi. Whereas Meyer has been (smartly) leveraging his southern connections, Harbaugh seems intent on dismantling the entire structure of southern football talent development and acquisition and putting a winged helmet on it.
Again, he doesn’t care. “I know you like to ask a lot of questions,” Harbaugh recently told a journalist in response to a query about possible player suspensions,. “That’s why I don’t give you any information, because you’re never satisfied.” Come winter, we’ll know whether Harbaugh’s act is part of the beginning of a new Midwest football renaissance.