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Jim Harbaugh’s spring break debate is bigger than Michigan vs. SEC

When Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh announced plans to take the Wolverines down to Florida for spring break, it did not take long for the SEC to take notice and raise concerns to the NCAA. Now a war of words is brewing, but this is larger than just Michigan vs. the SEC. This is merely just the beginning of a larger battle for the SEC. There is a lot more at stake for the SEC.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh has spring break all mapped out for the Wolverines football program this year. Instead of the team going separate ways over spring break on the Michigan calendar, Harbaugh is taking the entire team down to Florida for spring football practices. This, of course, has not been taken lightly by the SEC, which has already taken measures to attempt to have the NCAA lock Michigan out of the south as planned. It is not because the SEC is afraid of Michigan or Harbaugh specifically, but rather the possibility Michigan opens the doors to the south for spring football practices for other teams from the north.

Michigan plans to hold spring practices at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, a program known for producing some of the best college football athletes in the nation. While Michigan intends to setup spring practices on IMG’s campus, Michigan will not be allowed to have direct contact with students at IMG because the practices would occur during a dead period in recruiting. Nobody from Michigan would be allowed to have direct contact with IMG students, but the mere presence of the Michigan equipment truck and spring football practices alone is enough to generate interest and awareness of the program. Not that Michigan is a name anyone needs an introduction to, but this is a fantastic recruiting tool for Harbaugh nonetheless. This, more than anything else, is what the SEC does not want to see.

“Our primary reaction [is] that, in the face of the time-demand conversations, we’ve got one program taking what has been ‘free time’ away,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey told CBS Sports. “Let’s draw a line and say, ‘That’s not appropriate.'”

The SEC’s request to the NCAA to shut down football practices over spring is veiled under the disguise of protecting the student-athlete from football activity over what should be a time to relax, spring break. This is not fooling anybody though. The SEC can disguise their complaint in the interest of the student-athlete, but the SEC is only serving to protect its recruiting borders just as it attempted with the offseason satellite camp stance. The SEC doesn’t want Harbaugh and Michigan coming onto its soil and holding well-publicized spring practices, simple as that. But they are not hoping to just shut Michigan’s spring break plans down. They want to prevent the precedent from being set.

Odds are there are not too many college football programs that would pack up their equipment truck and fly the whole program south for spring practices over spring break, but there may be a few that would contemplate doing so. Remember, it’s not exactly cheap to travel as a football program between flying an entire team — players, coaches, trainers, other football-related personnel, equipment, uniforms, etc. — so only programs with a substantial budget to work with could even consider it. If Michigan can do it, then so could programs like Ohio State, Penn State or Nebraska. Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio has already gone on record saying he would consider doing the same. Then who knows what other programs start talking about the possibility.

Pittsburgh? Syracuse? Boston College? Notre Dame?

Sankey already admitted that he is concerned about the trend Michigan could start by moving spring football practices south.

“In addition, we need to understand that it’s really clear when people do things — push the boundaries — others follow and I think it is all in our collective best interests to say out-of-season sports using, in this case, spring break for practice purposes, is not appropriate.”

Sankey went on to refer to Harbaugh’s Twitter response as childish in the more important conversation to be had. Of course, the question I ask is whether or not the SEC would have filed a request to the NCAA to slam the door shut on spring break practices had it been North Dakota State announcing a plan to practice in Florida. I’m guessing the answer to that is “no.”

Nobody should blame the SEC for attempting to keep Michigan out of Florida. It makes perfect sense for the conference to protect its own interests and the supposed monopoly it controls over the top talent in the south. On the other side of the coin, nobody should be blaming Harbaugh for attempting to raise the bar as a head coach and football program. Harbaugh showed more improvement in one season at Ann Arbor than many probably expected, and that momentum has carried over on the recruiting trail after landing one of the top classes in the nation and pushing Ohio State to the final hour for the top class in the Big Ten. The Wolverines are on their way back to being a Big Ten contender (heck, it could come together this season) and much of that is because Harbaugh has pushed the envelope under the NCAA rules in the offseason. He should be commended for that, not criticized.

For years the SEC had been praised for raising the bar in college football. Now it is Harbaugh trying to raise the bar.

About the Author

Kevin McGuire
Contributor to College Football Talk on Also a contributor to Athlon Sports and The Comeback. Member of Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. Follow on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.