It’s an understatement to say that college football is a competitive game-both on and off the field. For big football schools like Michigan, Alabama, and Georgia, a successful school year includes a conference championship (or better) and plenty of revenue.
Coaches spend inordinate amounts of time and money recruiting top-tier high school players to ensure they can compete at the highest levels year after year. And typically, schools do their best recruiting relatively close to home. This tends to help the programs of the South Eastern Conference that are located in some of the most fertile recruiting grounds in the nation.
The NCAA attempts to regulate college football recruiting to ensure schools do not become disruptive to high school students and to maintain the illusion of a level playing field between big and small schools (guideline & calendar). The period in which Michigan plans to have practices in Florida is considered a “quiet period” for recruiting, meaning coaches can only have face-to-face contact with college-bound recruits on their own college campuses. The NCAA also only regulates the length and frequency of spring practices, not their locations.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh recently sought and received approval from the NCAA and the Big Ten to conduct spring practices at an elite Florida football high school, IMG Academy, in Bradenton, Florida. This is not the first time the school has conducted “satellite” camps, either. Last year Michigan conducted 11 satellite camps in 7 different states.
SEC coaches strongly dislike this trend:
Nick Saban of Alabama:
Jim McElwain of Florida:
Hugh Freeze of Ole Miss:
Brett Bielema of Arkansas:
“(The Wolverines are) obviously trying to gain a competitive advantage, and that’s their right,” said Smart, who took over the UGA program in December and served as Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator at Alabama the previous eight seasons (2008-15). “But I think the NCAA, in due time, will have to step in.”
Jim Harbaugh responded quickly to Kirby Smart’s comments, stating:
The NCAA recruiting rules exist for a reason. Without them, large universities with lots of money would seek even more elaborate ways to woo the talented high school students they wish to sign. The more money and effort pumped into recruiting, the less effective it would become as all other schools sought to do the same. Eventually, all of the major schools would be spending (even more) massive amounts of time and money for arguably little improvement in recruiting (not to mention the growing distraction to the high school students). Professor Joseph Heath labels this type of behavior a race to the bottom: “in which each individual, responding to the actions of the others, generates an outcome that is successively worse, but where each iteration of the interaction only intensifies their incentive to act in the same way.”
The NCAA rules help the big schools overcome a collective action problem. These schools have come to a collective agreement about the rules of recruiting to prevent the very race to the bottom that Harbaugh may reignite.
The SEC commissioner is currently seeking to block Harbaugh’s plans through appeals to the NCAA about college players’ “off-time”; if that effort fails, discussions about changing the SEC prohibitions on these so-called “satellite” camps may soon follow. If Harbaugh wants a recruiting war, I’m sure the SEC football programs would be more than willing and able to outspend him in prime southeastern recruiting territory.
So who is right? The SEC coaches who own a distinct geographic advantage on fertile recruiting ground? Or is it Coach Harbaugh who is most likely realizing improved exposure to key recruits by practicing in “warmer weather?”
Harbaugh may not be breaking the letter of the law, but he is pushing the spirit of it. Being a Georgia football fan who has long supported Georgia’s recently started indoor practice facility construction, I’ll remind the readers that Michigan has one of these: