Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh signs University of Michigan helmets during Spring Training in Bradenton, Fla. The former 49ers head coach has irked plenty of coaches from the SEC by being so visible on their stomping grounds. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

Harbaugh is smarter, bolder than the rest

Oh, if only Jed York could have grinned, chilled, managed Jim Harbaugh instead of fighting him, accepted his quirks and idiosyncrasies rather than politicking him out of Santa Clara. That way, the 49ers would be benefiting from a continuing innovative blitz that is transforming college football into Khaki World and making their deposed coach look like the smartest guy in the biz. What, you thought that was Trent Baalke?

The newcomer to whom Harbaugh will be compared moving forward, Chip Kelly, claims to know how his Niners will better adapt to early road kickoff times. “There’s a lot of studies done on your circadian rhythms,” he said, “and how to get your clock set and all those other things.” Which sounds like so much pseudo-intellectual babble.

At Michigan, Harbaugh not only is executing what he conceptualizes but is doing so with such defiance — and pissing off every industry rival with a Southern drawl — that he’s coming off like Donald Trump minus the penis boasting. Last week, in the middle of another swirling offseason that finds him selling his program by dominating news cycles, he scheduled practice sessions for his team during spring break … in Florida.

Genius, right? His players could bond without the pressures of classes and study work. They could enjoy the warm sun instead of dealing with an Ann Arbor winter. “You ever seen the movie ‘Remember the Titans?’ Check that out. We’re going to watch it tonight as a team,” Harbaugh said one day. “Team building. Team development. Getting to know each other better.”

Sounds wiser than sending dozens of kids to spring break on their own, exposing them to possible drunken moments — if not arrests — in a gotcha cellphone culture. “We want to be the team that has spring break in a first-class manner,” Harbaugh said. “We’re going to have a sober, healthy, productive spring break.”

Said Michigan tight end Jake Butt, echoing what any young football player would think: “We’re away. We’re down here in Florida. Beautiful territory. Sun shining. Not too hot. Nice breeze. Eating great food with our brothers. I don’t have anything negative to say about it.”

The only people who would take issue with this progressive thinking are those threatened by its brilliance. The Southeastern Conference may play the best brand of football at the college level, but Harbaugh fleeced Nick Saban and the boys this time, raiding their geographical territory again after holding some of his 11 satellite camps in Southern states last spring. He’s marketing the Michigan brand, of course, trying to saturate the country for recruiting and perception purposes. “In my America, you’re allowed to cross state borders,” Harbaugh said. “That’s the America I know.”

The SEC folks are fuming, led by commissioner Greg Sankey. Seems the Civil War is alive again, thanks to the rabble-rouser from up North. “We just haven’t seen widespread use of spring break for out-of-season practice,” Sankey said. “It just seems the wrong tone and it’s viewed by me and [others] as the wrong direction.”

To which Harbaugh responded, as he always does: “I guess he is stating a case, but it doesn’t hold water to me. It’s not an addition of time; it’s the same amount of time, 20 hours. We’ll be on the same rules and guidelines every other team will be under on spring practice. I think it’s comical that he’s taken exception to it.”

Said new Georgia coach Kirby Smart, a Saban protégé: “There’s a lot of factors that people don’t think about in that deal. You’ve gotta think about recruiting rules, how are they going to handle those, is it an advantage, disadvantage? Are they gonna let other coaches come to it, are they gonna hold open practices? Do we all come in there and watch them and scout them? If they’re all open practices, why don’t we go and watch them? It’s a Pandora’s Box of what it’s going to get into, obviously.”

To which Harbaugh responded, as he always does: “If the Georgia coach is implying any intent on our part to break rules, he is barking up the wrong tree.” He even managed to use the right word — barking — about the coach of the Bulldogs.

And when several coaches tweeted that they might fly down and watch Michigan’s open practice on Friday, Harbaugh was ready with a shot at Tennessee’s Butch Jones, whose program was rocked by a federal lawsuit over the school’s handling of sexual assault allegations. “Suggestion to my Rocky Top colleague, rather than lunch in Florida you might spend your time and focus attending to your present team,” he tweeted.

They wouldn’t care if Harbaugh’s camp was in Battle Creek, Mich. But he brought the Wolverines to Bradenton, Fla., to the famed IMG Academy, which recruits top players for heavily competitive high-school seasons. In the minds of rival coaches, Harbaugh is using “spring break” as a guise to recruit in what is supposed to be a quiet period. The players and coaches stayed in townhouses. They worked out in a state-of-the-art field house. They ate meals at a golf club. They attended Major League Baseball spring-training games. They went bowling, played ping-pong.

And it’s all legal, according to the NCAA, which sent representatives to Harbaugh’s spring fling just to make sure. That didn’t stop NCAA president Mark Emmert from voicing a dissenting view: “They’re having a hard time being students and doing what students want to do.”

“It can certainly be asserted that it’s inconsistent with some of the conversations about time demands,” said Big 12 commissioner and former Stanford athletic director Bob Bowlsby, who chairs the NCAA’s football oversight committee. “Right now there’s no rule that prohibits that. My guess is there will be a lot of conversation about it in the coming months.”

Point being, Harbaugh isn’t breaking any rule. As the NCAA noted to The Associated Press, “Michigan reached out to the NCAA national office for guidance in preparation for its spring practice.” He’s simply outhustling the field, just as he does when he sleeps over at a recruit’s house, climbs a tree to impress another recruit, asks Tom Brady and Derek Jeter to appear in Ann Arbor on Signing Day, attends WWE’s “Raw,” plays in the AT&T Pro-Am at Pebble Beach, expresses an affinity for Judge Judy and coaches first base for the Detroit Tigers in a Grapefruit League game.

He relates to the kids. He’s a champ on social media. He’s cooler, bolder, sharper than the competition. Some would say slicker. Some would say he’s one misstep from probation. For now, Harbaugh is just routing the competition.

“There’s a lot of teams that travel to the state of Florida, to Arizona, softball team, baseball teams, and I bet if you researched I bet some of those teams do that in their offseason, the fall,” he told the Detroit Free Press. “Our tennis team will be hitting balls [in Florida] next week.”

His 2016 recruiting class is ranked third in the country. It doesn’t hurt when he agrees to pose in a recruit’s reimagined prom proposal, or when he has a baker make virtual cakes in the shape of a recruit’s home state, such as Texas for defensive tackle Jordan Elliott.

It’s all about branding, the 21st-century way. “I don’t know what that means, a brand,” Harbaugh protests. “I’m sharing a love for football.”

And when the spring fling ended Friday night, the mastermind declared it a whopping success. “Exceeded expectations,” Harbaugh said. “I would recommend this to other football programs. I’d recommend it to us to do it again. There were no negatives.

“What was trying to be accomplished was developing as a team, further getting to know each other, getting to know your teammates. Player development, that was one of the main things. I think we accomplished a lot of really good things. That it was unique? It was good. I think we all feel like innovators.”

What a shame that York didn’t buy in. It’s still a sore topic, with the CEO offering only faint praise — “Jim Harbaugh is a good football coach” — after the quick Michigan rebuild was accompanied by the Jim Tomsula debacle. Kelly enjoys his reputation as an innovator, saying, “I have kind of a quest and a thirst for trying to improve. And I think you can. One of the things that attracted me to coming to this part of the country, it’s probably the most fertile, creative ground around when you look at the companies in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area itself. I’m excited to be a part of it. I mean, you walk to work and you smell the air around here, you get smarter. So, hopefully that will teach us to get a couple more [wins].”

Chip Kelly is hoping to win. Jim Harbaugh already is winning — big.

And has for a long time now.

Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at jmariotti@sfexaminer.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.

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