Guerry Clegg

Guerry Clegg: Nick Saban, Jim Harbaugh line up to protect their turf

Alabama coach Nick Saban speaks about spring practice during an NCAA college football, Friday, March 11, 2016, at the Mal Moore Athletic Facility in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Alabama coach Nick Saban speaks about spring practice during an NCAA college football, Friday, March 11, 2016, at the Mal Moore Athletic Facility in Tuscaloosa, Ala. AP

Jim Harbaugh’s right, you know. It might seem like sacrilege in SEC country to side with a guy who lives closer to the Canadian border than to the Mason-Dixon Line over the most accomplished coach in college football.

But Harbaugh is right, at least about one thing. It’s hypocritical for Alabama coach Nick Saban to preach about “the integrity of the game” regarding satellite camps.

Quick background. When Harbaugh left the San Francisco 49ers to become head coach at Michigan, he knew he needed to develop a stronger recruiting presence in the hotbed of high school football. That hotbed just so happened to be the heart of SEC country. The three most talent-rich states are Georgia, Florida and Texas, which happen to be home to SEC teams.

But getting the best players in the South to visit a campus up north, especially in the cold months, was a challenge. So Harbaugh, sort of college football’s mad scientist in khakis and sneakers, developed a brilliant idea. Go visit these players on their turf. Their scorching turf in the heat of the summer. Oh, he just might mention how pleasant the weather is back in Ann Arbor.

Saban reacted as if his nose tackle lined up offsides on third-and-4. He blew a fuse. Saban has opposed satellite camps from the beginning. He spent time last week at the SEC spring meetings back on his soap box, calling it “the wild, wild west at its best because there been no specific guidelines relative to how we’re managing and controlling this stuff.”

So Saban’s only concern is the intergrity of the game.

Integrity of the game?

Like over-signing players?

Like gray-shirting players?

Like signing a player who had pending felony charges of striking his girlfriend with an open hand?

Like offering scholarships to middle-schoolers?

A reporter asked Saban if he would be opposed to satellite camps if he were still coaching at Michigan State.

“Can you blame Jim Harbaugh …” the reporter said.

“I’m not blaming Jim Harbaugh,” Saban said. “I’m not saying anything about it. I’m just saying it’s bad for college football. Jim Harbaugh can do whatever he wants to do. I’m not saying anything bad about him if he think that’s what best. There needs to be somebody that looks out for what’s best for the game, not what’s best for the Big 10 or what’s best for the SEC or what’s best for Jim Harbaugh, but what’s best for the game of college football. The integrity of the game – the coaches, the players and the people that play it. That’s bigger than all this.”

Saban raised some good points. Satellite camps are not sanctioned by the NCAA. They are held by high schools or individuals who want to get exposure for some players. That’s a slippery slope. It’s hard enough to control overzealous boosters. Satellite camps could — and probably will — lead to de facto agents.

“So all you’re doing is allowing all these other people that we spend all of our time at the NCAA saying we can’t recruit through a third party. You can’t be involved with third-party people,” Saban said.

Then he slapped the podium for emphasis.

BAM!

“And that’s exactly what you’re doing, creating all these third parties that’s going to get involved with the prospects and all that.”

Yes, satellite camps are going to lead to a whole new set of regulations, just like what happened with cell phones, then email, then texting, then social media. That’s why, when coaches talk about reducing the size of the NCAA Manual, it only gets thicker and thicker.

Coaches have to be regulated because they can’t regulate themselves. Tell them they can sign only 25 players a year, and they will find a way to sign more. One year Tennessee’s Butch Jones signed 32 players and reportedly told a Volunteers booster club, “If we can find a way to sign 35, we’ll sign 35.”

Some schools over-sign, then trim their numbers by telling some of the players that they can’t enroll until January, so they will count against the next year’s signing class. They don’t even let them red-shirt. Hence the term gray-shirting. To create spots, they tell under-performing players they should go elsewhere if they ever want to see the field.

The rules allow coaches to restrict players like former Georgia running back AJ Turman from transferring wherever they want.

Harbaugh did what just about every college football coach does. He found a loophole to NCAA rules. Saban can rant all he wants. But there’s no question that if satellite camps benefitted Alabama, he would be all for them.

Of course, we’ll never know for sure. Saban doesn’t deal with hypotheticals.

Guerry Clegg: sports@ledger-enquirer.com, @guerryclegg

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