Jim Harbaugh has not actually seen much of the SEC as a player or coach. As Michigan's quarterbacks, his only matchup withs SEC teams were a 9-7 Sugar Bowl loss to Auburn in which he was a backup, and a 34-3 win at South Carolina, who was still an independent team at the time. As head coach at Stanford, Harbaugh never crossed paths with a team from the most powerful conference in college football. It wasn't until Jan. 1, 2016, that Harbaugh truly met the SEC head-to-head, with Michigan demolishing Florida 41-7 in the Citrus Bowl.
Nevertheless, Harbaugh's off-the-field battle with the SEC has quickly become one of the most fascinating rivalries in sports.
The latest battle is in response to Harbaugh's decision to take his Michigan team to Florida for part of spring practice during spring break in March. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey responded by telling CBS Sports that the SEC wants to ban holding practice over spring break, claiming that Michigan is making the problem of increased time demands on players even worse.
From 2006 through the end of the BCS era, the SEC dominated the college football universe. While powerful financially, the Big Ten was perceived as passive and meek, unable to stand toe-to-toe with the conference that won seven straight national championships, including the first two against Big Ten heavyweight Ohio State. Stuck with an increasingly difficult geographic situation on the recruiting trail, struggles at Michigan and a lack of depth otherwise, the Big Ten became a football punch line.
Urban Meyer's hiring at Ohio State was a big step in the right direction -- after all, in 2014 he won the Big Ten's first national title since 2002 -- but the league still needed something more. It needed another prominent, top-five coach nationally, one willing to aggressively fight for his school and for his conference. Meyer needed a true rival. For as good as Mark Dantonio has been at Michigan State, the right person for the job is Harbaugh, the coach more willing than anybody to fight back against perceived SEC supremacy and find creative ways to promote his school and, thus, the Big Ten as a whole.
It's already working to perfection. Last offseason, Harbaugh ruffled feathers with his satellite camp tour of America, acting as a visiting coach at various prep football camps by partnering with smaller schools. He didn't invent the idea -- Penn State's James Franklin has done the same -- but his aggressive approach made satellite camps one of the most talked about things during the 2015 offseason. The SEC had banned its coaches from participating in them, and it wanted to protect its turf and not let Harbaugh try to make in-roads in its recruiting territory.
And after a year of increasingly creative and/or bizarre recruiting tactics that drew constant attention, Harbaugh is pushing the envelope again. On signing day, he signed a top-five class nationally, headlined by No. 1 overall recruit Rashan Gary from New Jersey. At his press conference, he confirmed his next step: During Michigan's spring break, Harbaugh will take the Wolverines' spring practice away from the Ann Arbor cold to Bradenton, Florida.
Harbaugh said the team will have four practices, in addition to doing a variety of other activities off the field.
"I think it gives a chance to win on a lot of different levels," Harbaugh said, according to MGoBlog.. "One is that everybody's going to get a spring break. There's no youngster that can't afford to fly somewhere won't be able to enjoy his spring break. … We'll be outside, we'll be in Florida, go to the beach. It'll be a good time for our team to connect and be together, so that's a lot of levels right there to win on so very much looking forward to it."
These are benefits, sure. But the specific location is the biggest, unstated reason. Michigan will be practicing at IMG Academy, the prep sports factory that produced five of the nation's top 100 recruits in 2016, according to 247Sports. IMG had nine four- or five-star recruits, who signed with Ohio State (2), LSU (2), Ole Miss (1), Florida State (1), Notre Dame (1), Clemson (1) and Georgia (1).
And guess where the early pick for the No. 1 player in the class of 2017 plays? Yes, of course, linebacker Dylan Moses is at IMG. Three of the top 50 players are at IMG as of now, and while Michigan can't have direct contact with recruits in March, it's not as if its presence won't be felt by the top players who go to the academy. Harbaugh will frame it as a fun trip to sunny Florida for his players -- which, yes, it is -- but the true purpose is to continue making Michigan football a national brand.
Remember when Harbaugh had a couple sleepovers with prospective 2016 recruits? This is like the entire Michigan team having a week-long sleepover at the high school of several top recruits.
It's no surprise that the SEC in particular is fighting back. The SEC sits in the nation's best recruiting territory, and Sankey's job is to protect the interests of its constituents. Just like Bret Bielema tried to fight against up-tempo offenses by trying to frame it as a player-safety concern rather than his own competitive disadvantage, the SEC is hiding its concerns about Harbaugh invading its territory in rhetoric about taking vacation time away from players.
Harbaugh's indirect response?
Question of the day: Does anyone find whining to be attractive? Just curious.— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) February 10, 2016
To be fair, time demands are a legitimate gripe. But it's hard to take the SEC seriously when such concerns are expressed selectively. College football teams sacrifice much of winter break for bowl trips. College basketball teams often travel to tournaments over Thanksgiving, Christmas and spring breaks. Michigan's baseball team will spend much of February and March playing multi-game series in Florida, California, Hawaii and Oklahoma.
Sure, those are trips for actual games and not practice, but the SEC still can't hide its actual motives: Preventing Harbaugh and the Big Ten from finding ways to attempt to close the recruiting gap.
For years, the Big Ten was the one complaining, about the SEC's oversigning and other tactics used by aggressive coaches like Nick Saban. Now, the tables have turned. Harbaugh is, within the rules, aggressively trying to promote the Michigan brand and find ways to succeed in new recruiting territories.
Harbaugh: you're allowed to cross state borders in my America— Mark Snyder (@Mark__Snyder) February 3, 2016
He's already had some success, and hiring Paramus Catholic coach Chris Partridge helped him land five of the top eight players in New Jersey. Naturally, the next push is to Florida, one of the three most talent-rich states in America, one that has produced past Michigan stars like Anthony Carter and Denard Robinson. It won't stop with the spring break trip to IMG, either. On Wednesday, the Miami Herald reported that Michigan may be on the verge of hiring Devin Bush, a former NFL safety and the head coach of Flanagan High School in the Miami area. It would be like hiring Partridge, except for south Florida instead of New Jersey. Bush also happens to be the father of Devin Bush Jr., a four-star linebacker recruit who enrolled at Michigan in January.
Predictably, rival coaches and rival fan bases are fed up with Harbaugh's approach, and its not as if there aren't any valid criticisms of the plan to take an entire team to a high school filled with prospective top recruits. As usual, though, most coaches are probably just mad that they didn't think of it first.
Besides, the college football offseason is long. Observing the new Harbaugh-SEC rivalry has become an entertaining way to pass the time, and it's making an inevitable Harbaugh-SEC College Football Playoff clash even more enticing.