So with National Signing Day now just a few days away, there’s this funny, sort of dumb narrative that’s been going around that is cute, but 100 percent incorrect.
That narrative? That Jim Harbaugh is a crazy person.
Sure, that narrative has been around for awhile, but it seems to have picked up steam over the last month or so. With Signing Day now just a few days away, in some people’s eyes, Harbaugh has evolved into a tree-climbing sleepover-coordinating wackadoo. A guy who has completely lost his mind, a loose cannon, and someone who you have no idea what he’ll do next.
Ok, so maybe that last part is true; you really don’t have any idea what he’ll do or say next.
But the idea that he’s crazy? It’s the furthest thing from the truth.
If anything, I believe the last few weeks have shown the exact opposite: That it’s all part of Jim Harbaugh’s master plan. That in addition to being a football genius, he’s a marketing genius too. And on Sunday, he may have pulled off his greatest — and smartest — stunt yet.
For those of you who weren’t paying attention, here’s what happened: Michigan had already announced a special Signing Day ceremony, but on Sunday details began to emerge. The main details were that Michigan’s signing day ceremony included a bunch of “celebrity guests” who would help Harbaugh introduce the 2016 class, and that the entire ceremony would be streamed online.
So who were those celebrities you ask? Only some of the biggest names in sports, a group that includes former Wolverine Tom Brady, Michigan native (and UM fan) Derek Jeter, and a bunch of other local dignitaries like Desmond Howard, Jim Leyland and Denard Robinson as well. Other celebrities whose affiliation with Michigan is… umm… a little bit looser, will be there too, including Lou Holtz, Mike Shanahan and Brad Keslowski. (Because let’s be honest, when you think Brad Keslowski, isn’t “Michigan football” the first thing that pops to mind?)
Naturally when the announcement happened, the internet reacted the same way it always does: non-Michigan fans mocked Harbaugh for the outside-the-box approach. After all, that’s kind of what everyone does in 2016. Rather than embrace something new and different, it’s much easier to run to Twitter and make a sarcastic joke about it, right?
Unfortunately it is, but I think there’s a larger point here. Not only is this move totally outside-the-box, but it’s also totally brilliant. Most importantly, I think it speaks to something that everyone is missing, the point I began this article with.
That Jim Harbaugh is a freakin’ marketing genius.
The simple truth is, everybody loves celebrities, and what better way to tell kids in the classes of 2017, 2018 and 2019, “Hey come to Michigan, we’re pretty awesome” than by streaming a press conference with a bunch of celebrities? While Alabama, Ohio State and Michigan State (your biggest rivals) are going through the same boring press conferences, with the same boring coach speak that have been going on for decades (after all, how many times can you hear Nick Saban say “We got a great group of football players, and more importantly, a better group of people?”), Harbaugh will be on stage rubbing elbows with Dr. Lou Holtz, and who knows, maybe lighting up a Marlboro red with Jim Leyland.
Yes, I’m being a little bit sarcastic (again, that’s what we do in 2016), but do you realize the brilliance of this? After all, if you want to be the next Tom Brady, why not go to the school where you might actually hang out with the original Tom Brady? Why not go to the school where Derek Jeter is introducing your name to the masses (on his own website by the way)? That’s a lot cooler than some random DB’s coach doing the same, like they do at every other school in America. Right?
Again, this is an absolutely brilliant move by Harbaugh, and to his credit, he’s doing something that I’ve said some college football coach should do for years. He’s basically taking a play right out of John Calipari’s playbook on how to build buzz around a college program.
What do I mean by that?
Well, in following Calipari through the years (and — gratuitous plug — in writing a book about his first team at Kentucky) what has impressed me above everything else with Calipari is how he has marketed the program.
Sure, part of it is about the one-and-done culture and getting kids to the NBA as fast as he possibly can. But what it’s also about is making Kentucky the “cool” program in college basketball, the one that is being talked about 365 days a year, regardless of whether it’s in-season or not, and whether the team is (frankly) any good or not. No college basketball program — I would argue no college sports program — is on everyone’s mind, 365 days a year quite like Calipari’s. To his credit, he basically wakes up every day, looks in the mirror and says, “How am I going to get the word out about my program today?”
Sure, Calipari’s ideas aren’t quite as zany as Harbaugh’s (to the best of my knowledge, he’s never climbed a recruit’s tree), but they are one-of-a-kind and unique. Remember, Calipari is the guy who created a preseason combine for NBA scouts (which in turn becomes an annual two-hour Kentucky infomercial). He’s also the guy who turned a preseason trip into the Bahamas into a made-for-TV, multiple-game event. Again, everyone takes these preseason trips. Calipari was the only one who got everyone buzzing about his three months before the season started.
Calipari has also realized the value — in a way no other college coach has — in having celebrities around his team.
Kids love rubbing elbows with the stars, and if you come to Kentucky, you’re going to do that. Just in the 2010 season alone (the one I wrote my book on), LeBron, Magic Johnson and Mike Tomlin all came to games. Drake also performed at their Midnight Madness event, and UK has basically become Drake’s defacto, go-to college basketball team since. Jay-Z once made an appearance in the ‘Cats postgame locker room celebration. The Oklahoma City Thunder sed Kentucky’s practice facility to work out during the 2011 NBA lockout.
Ask anyone who has played for, worked at or covered Kentucky and they’ll all tell you the same thing: When you walk around campus, you just never know who you’ll see.
And whether Jim Harbaugh fully realizes it or not, he’s kinda, sorta doing the same thing at Michigan.
I first noticed it when Harbaugh “invited” Jameis Winston and Bryce Petty to work out at the school before the draft last winter. At the time it seemed like a cool move, and became even cooler (and better for Michigan) when Winston spent the whole time on campus raving about the place. Only later did we come to understand the whole sinister nature of the trip. Eventually the visit turned into a made-for-TV pre-draft special that ran on ESPN. And of course, there was Harbaugh serving as a “mentor” for those two guys as they prepared for the draft.
And from there, there was more star gazing in Ann Arbor. Harbaugh sent along a jersey to Lil’ Wayne when he performed in Michigan last spring. He gave a rapper named G-Eazy (someone so hip that I haven’t even heard of him) a shout out on Twitter. And he invited Big Sean to the postgame locker room as well (the fact that Harbaugh called Big Sean’s new album “a real toe tapper” may have been my favorite moment of 2015).
At the same time, it also raises a very important question: Do you think Jim Harbaugh has any damn idea who Big Sean is?
Of course not.
But do you think he realizes that the players he’s recruiting love him?
You’re damn right he does.
And if anything, it speaks to a larger point about Harbaugh: he has come to learn the most No. 1 rule in marketing. He understands that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
As a matter of fact, I’m going to take things one step further: You know all the wacky, zany, goofy stuff that he’s done on the recruiting trail this winter?
It’s all part of his master plan.
You might think I’m crazy, but ever notice how when Harbaugh does something goofy, there’s a camera around to document it? Like when he climbed that tree on a recruiting visit? Or when he had a sleepover at a recruit’s house? Or when he went shirtless at a satellite camp last spring?
You think he’s crazy, but in Harbaugh’s mind, he’s doing whatever it takes to get you talking about Michigan football. And that’s all we’ve done since he’s arrived at Michigan. It happened all last spring and summer into the fall, and again into this recruiting period. In (what I believe to be) one of the quietest recruiting cycles I can ever remember, just about the only guy who is continually making headlines is Harbaugh. Every day we wake up, and every day Harbaugh is trending for something completely different than the night before.
And whether you think Harbaugh’s tactics are crazy there’s one thing that you absolutely can’t deny: They appear to be working. Michigan currently has one of the top five recruiting classes in the country, according to basically every recruiting service that documents these things. That class could get even better if, as expected, the Wolverines land the No. 1 player in the country on Signing Day, a kid by the name of Rashan Gary from New Jersey.
Add it all up, and it’s just further proof that Jim Harbaugh is a genius.
We see it every Saturday on the field.
And we’re seeing it this winter off the field as well.