Back in the 1930s, a former football coach in Mississippi wrote a letter to his mentor, Bob Zuppke, who happened to be the head coach at the University of Illinois. "The Southern schools are getting it down to a science, greeting and hand shaking, seeing that they have a place to eat, a place to sleep, often they pay the traveling expenses for the better boys, they try them out just to see (how fast they could run and how well they withstood physical contact)," the coach wrote, according to John Sayle Watterson's definitive history of college football. In the south, this correspondent wrote, the schools even sponsored free coaching schools for high-school coaches.
The purpose of the letter was an offer to help Zuppke introduce more aggressive "southern" recruiting tactics into the Big Ten. The Big Ten had to keep up somehow, especially after the Southeastern Conference began rewarding outright football scholarships in 1935. And ever since then—and even before then—the Big Ten and the SEC have stood in symbolic opposition, with the former largely standing for more rigid codes of conduct and the latter pushing to liberalize the rules (never mind that the public rhetoric often belied a sense of hypocrisy—the Big Ten, in particular, was never quite as clean as it portrayed itself to be). Eight decades later, not much had changed. Well, not until this offseason, when a wild catalyst was thrown into the mix.
That catalyst, of course, is Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh, who is apparently willing to do or say whatever it takes to upset the dominant paradigm. The Big Ten and SEC are still butting heads, this time over the issue of satellite camps, which may have an adjacent noble purpose but are also tools for programs like Michigan to recruit in areas they otherwise wouldn't, particularly in the south.
Harbaugh's public push to restore satellite camps managed to raise the hackles of Alabama coach Nick Saban, who unleashed a rant about them this week at the SEC's spring meetings, comparing satellite camps to "the wild, wild west." And Harbaugh responded to this on Twitter by pointing out that a member of Saban's coaching staff was dismissed this spring for alleged recruiting violations.
And then Saban said: "That's his business. I don't really care what he thinks or tweets. I say what I think is best for college football and say what I think is best for the players and the kids."
And then Harbaugh said: "The issue was what I said it was. Somebody that had just recently broken rules and has that in their history is lecturing us coaches—us other coaches—about potentially violating rules. I just thought it was hypocritical. I thought it was a hypocritical act."
If this all seems like a childish back-and-forth worthy of our current political climate, there's probably a reason for that. Because in the end, I think this whole kerfuffle is less about satellite camps and more about the ever-roiling politics of a sport that is in the midst of radical changes.
At this point, the rhetoric has so obfuscated the central issue that I honestly don't know if Harbaugh's central claim about the utility of satellite camps is right or wrong. But I kind of think that's not the point anymore. I kind of think what Harbaugh is trying to do is far more Machiavellian than that. I think he's trying to upend the status quo, to go straight at what has long been perceived as the SEC's central weakness compared to the Big Ten—a perceived emphasis on "winning at all costs" that goes back nearly a century—and utilize that to alter the recruiting paradigm of the Big Ten itself.
Everyone knows by now that the vast wealth of high-school talent is in the south, where high school football matters more than anywhere else. That's not going to change anytime soon; in fact, it's likely that this will become more pronounced if football cannot solve its concussion crisis, leading parents in other regions of the country to become more likely to funnel their children into less overtly treacherous sports.
So Harbaugh is firing a shot across the bow of the traditional Big Ten-SEC relationship. We're not going to react to you this time, in the way Bob Zuppke was once urged to, Harbaugh seems to be saying. We're going to move first. For once, a Big Ten coach is the one pushing the envelope, whether you agree with him or not. For once, the SEC has been put on defense. That, I imagine, was at least one of Harbaugh's goals from the beginning.
And maybe it won't make a lasting difference. The talent is still in the south, which means the majority of the talent is going to wind up staying in the south. Maybe Saban will retire within five years, and maybe Harbaugh will wind up back in the NFL within five years, and maybe everything will revert back to the way it's long been, with the Big Ten cultivating an often self-righteous amateuristic bent and the SEC advocating for more looseness. Maybe all of this will matter less if the system itself is altered by the Supreme Court taking up the Ed O'Bannon antitrust case appeal, or by other legal action. But if nothing else, it is a fascinating break in an otherwise dull part of the college football offseason. This is the gift of Jim Harbaugh: He's honed that sense of provocation to a science.
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