Inside Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh's infamous satellite camps
Jim Harbaugh's passion for football shines during his camps, and his unstated goal to win over coaches, parents and players is working
BALTIMORE, Md. -- It's Week 2 of Jim Harbaugh's barnstorming tour of the
United States world with 39 satellite camps in 22 states, American Samoa and Australia. So naturally, Harbaugh is selling football when he addresses about 100 middle schoolers and their parents in downtown Baltimore on Monday.
"All you guys got to do to make it to high school football and then college football, and even pro football, all you've got to do is go out and work, people!" Harbaugh shouts. "And most of America right now, most of the parents don't let their kids play football. We're starting to recruit in Samoa and Australia because the American kids are getting scared, you know? So the odds could not be better for you to take advantage of everything football has to offer."
In Harbaugh's America, there are no borders. In Harbaugh's America, you find creative loopholes to cut into different regions to sell your brand. You wear a different pro sports jersey at each camp depending on the city. You passionately help kids learn the game for a couple hours with other college coaches. You get annoyed by the NCAA's evolving rules over these camps. And sure, you keep an eye out for possible prospects for Michigan.
Satellite camps -- in which smaller schools host football clinics and invite coaches from larger schools to attend as instructors -- have become a hot-button issue in college football. The SEC and ACC fought to have them banned, and the NCAA could still end up regulating them. Nick Saban called the camps "the wild, wild West" because there are no guidelines.
So I wanted to see Harbaugh's camps for myself. On the surface, they undoubtedly can face some challenges with nit-picky NCAA rules. Yet very few people care about NCAA bylaws in the real world.
I spoke to a couple dozen parents and players over a span of about five hours and this was the resounding message: Thank you for coming, Jim Harbaugh.
"It's huge -- huge -- to have this in inner city Baltimore," says Christopher Braswell, who took his 14-year-old son out of school -- almost all of the middle-schoolers played hooky -- to the middle school camp. "It gives kids a sense that someone's out there who cares about them. These guys come from Michigan. It's 10 bucks, so they're not making any money off it. A lot of people can't afford more. Bring your kid here to interact with college coaches and high school coaches. Black, white, they're just out there having fun. What's wrong with that?"
Over the past couple days, Harbaugh has expressed frustration with the NCAA's rules. He says he can no longer sign autographs at the camps and can't take photos with high school players, though he claims he can pose with middle schoolers and does so repeatedly.
"They're making these rules up as they go along," Harbaugh says. "It's really discouraging, but I think there's a real prejudice against football in this country -- at the pro level, the college level, the high school level, the Pee Wee level."
Prejudice against football how?
"Let's take lacrosse, for example," Harbaugh begins. "It's a rising, affluent sport. You can recruit them in the eighth grade. They have a dead period for like a couple days in August, but it's a lot of contact in the summer, and it's a totally different situation (than football). Am I fighting back? Yeah, personally and collectively, because football is one of the greatest games ever invented."
This is Harbaugh in a nutshell: It's us against them, even if some of them are other football coaches. It bothers him to keep learning different rules each day about the camps. Harbaugh says one or two NCAA officials and a Michigan compliance officer attend every camp.
On Monday, a Michigan compliance officer initially tells him he cannot do media interviews. When I ask Harbaugh for an interview, he turns to his compliance official and she says it's OK, but just be careful.
"The one thing you don't want to do is you don't want to be anti the student-athlete," Harbaugh says, teeing off on the NCAA. "You don't want to be anti the families. And you don't want to be anti-competition because somebody might take that to the Supreme Court. They call that what?"
That would be antitrust.
"Antitrust!" Harbaugh responds enthusiastically. "Somebody better be thinking long and hard about this. Hopefully, the courts have something to say about it."
The SEC's stated concerns with the camps include regulation and expanding the recruiting calendar.
"Satellite camps are supposed to be instructional," Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley said last week. "There's no question it turned into recruiting camps. So we've expanded the recruiting calendar. If that's what we want to do, let's change the rules and put that in the rulebook that we're now going to have recruiting opportunities throughout the year. I think we're going to introduce third-party people into the equation. That's my concern."
I tell Harbaugh the SEC's concerns and ask him why he thinks the conference has fought back so much against the camps. He pauses for a couple seconds. "I've got an idea what it is. I'm confirming it. I want to confirm it first," he says.
The middle school camp in the morning is largely about teaching and drills, all without pads and helmets, just like the high school session. These middle schoolers are too far away from college for serious consideration of recruiting them just yet. Harbaugh asks one seventh-grade quarterback if Michigan quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch was able to see him. Fisch did in fact see him.
Meet John Griffith, a seventh grader from Pasadena, Maryland, who will be in the class of 2021. He was recently named an All-American for his age group at the Football University Top Gun camp, one of the biggest showcases in the country. He's had numerous write-ups about him already in this world where quarterbacks get groomed at younger and younger ages.
"[Fisch] liked my form, he liked my drop," Griffith says. "It was a really good experience to see Jim Harbaugh working with me and all the quarterback coaches for Michigan."
Jim Griffith, John's dad, says Monday was a chance for more exposure for his son and he can't understand the SEC's complaints.
"That's because they don't want to work as hard," Jim Griffith says. "[Harbaugh] has worked hard. He's got to sell his brand and you can't fault him for that."
The afternoon and evening camps are for high school players. They wear numbers on the back of their shirts for coaches to identify them, similar to AAU basketball. Virtually all of Maryland's staff show up, including coach DJ Durkin. So does Syracuse coach Dino Babers, Alabama offensive analyst Mike Locksley and staff members from Navy, Wake Forest and about a dozen smaller colleges.
Tony Kennedy, director of the Crab Bowl (Maryland's high school all-star game), says these satellite camps are similar to SEC coaches watching spring ball in the South.
"Those coaches come out and watch them in spring ball so this is our version of spring ball without it being spring ball," Kennedy says. "What are they crying for? They win all the titles. We're just trying to get a piece up here."
Technically, St. Frances Academy advertised the Baltimore camps. It's a small Catholic school located in the heart of Baltimore not far from the city jail. St. Frances opened in 1828 and calls itself the oldest continuously operating, predominantly black Catholic high school in the world.
Jalen Mayden, a high-profile quarterback from Texas, takes part in the camp because he's considering transferring to St. Frances for his final two years. He says St. Frances is a good opportunity for him to be around better athletes and get the feel of college, such as waking up at 5:30 a.m. for workouts.
College coaches nudge each other as Mayden throws. One assistant points out to his head coach that's a kid to watch. Word circulates that he's a player to watch.
A southpaw, Mayden can deliver a strong deep ball and accurate mid-range throw. There's a reason 247Sports ranks him as the No. 9 dual-threat quarterback for the 2018 class and lists offers for him from Ohio State, Houston, Louisville, Louisiana-Monroe, Mississippi State, Oregon State, Syracuse and Utah.
The satellite camp "gave me a feel of how good some of the athletes are around here," Mayden says. "Coach Harbaugh was funny, a good man. He was telling me, 'Good throw, good throw, you can do this to make an even better throw.'"
Mayden isn't the only player who traveled to be seen Monday. Walking around the field is former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, who flew his grandson, rising senior quarterback Jackson Gibbs, on a private jet from Charlotte to be seen by college coaches.
Jackson Gibbs, the namesake of his famous grandfather, has no scholarship offers entering the summer of his senior year. He plans to visit Maryland and Virginia's camps this summer and just got an invite to Michigan's camp.
"It's going to be a big decision where he goes to school so it's a good time to work out in front of coaches," Joe Gibbs says. "First time I've been to one of these. It sure seems like this helps the players."
Of all the quarterbacks in the afternoon session, Mayden and Gibbs looked like they may be the most polished. When Gibbs lets loose a gorgeous deep ball, Locksley shouts, "There's the money ball!" Maryland offensive coordinator Walt Bell often shows Gibbs different mechanics and techniques on his delivery.
When Gibbs displays good footwork for an accurate throw, Harbaugh exclaims, "Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. Having a day, 182," referring to Gibbs' number on the back of his shirt to identify him. Harbaugh later asks Gibbs what year he is in high school.
"I feel like I got a late start in recruiting," Gibbs says. "It definitely gets me out there to be seen and start relationships. I can't see why anybody would get mad at this. It's just a bunch of kids getting together and showing their skills, you know? Why not have a place where kids that cannot normally travel get to meet these coaches? I think it's very beneficial."
This is Harbaugh's pitch for satellite camps: Let the coaches come to the kids to see them. Satellite camps have existed for about a decade. Harbaugh took them to a new level -- and heightened criticism -- by barnstorming the country, even though he sometimes wonders if it's too much when he goes to bed sore some nights.
"You wake up the next morning a couple times and it's been, 'Maybe the critics were right and we did bite off a little more than we can chew,'" Harbaugh says. "But then you come out here and you see the heart these guys have for football and these football faces and they're just chomping at the bit to get coached and wanting to be out here improving their game, and it just re-energizes you."
At each stop, Harbaugh wears a pro sports jersey from the market of the camp. Baltimore means Harbaugh wears both Cal Ripken and Ray Lewis jerseys that, as always, are tucked into his khaki pants. Twitter often mocks him for his apparent fashion faux pas.
Jim Harbaugh goes with the Cal Ripken jersey at a satellite camp today in Baltimore. pic.twitter.com/GuBd95bDtd— Jon Solomon (@JonSolomonCBS) June 6, 2016
"I'm a tuck-in guy," Harbaugh explains, tugging at his belt. "In football, the advantage of tucking in your jersey is big. It's harder to grab the jersey when it's tucked in. When it's untucked, they can grab it, they can sling you, they can swing you, so I always like to tuck in it, and I like the sight lines better of a tucked-in shirt. Football is a game of sight lines -- a very symmetrical field with lines and hashes and dimensions. Sight lines are important."
After the afternoon session, Harbaugh asks me what I thought of the camps.
"Interesting," I tell him.
"Define interesting," he presses.
"People looked like they had fun," I tell him. "There was coaching. Of course, it certainly helps your brand."
"I suppose it helps us, but that's not why we do it," Harbaugh insists. "We've been recruiting about 200-250 youngsters right now for the 2017 class. We know who those guys are. We could just as easily recruit them from Ann Arbor. That's not why we're out here. We're out here for the good of the game, and I would tell the other coaches, instead of complaining, come out and do this."
"You do know you said earlier that you can't take photographs with high school players, yet you just took some pictures with a couple players," I tell him.
"Yeah, I did. Guess I forgot about it," Harbaugh responds. "So you're one of those cheap-shot bastards?"
"Nope. Just reminding you what you said."
"All right, we'll see," Harbaugh concludes.
Harbaugh moves on to shake hands with a couple players. Then he loudly delivers a message for anyone near him to hear: "I'm not allowed to do pictures!"
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