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College Football Satellite Camp Debate Rages Onward

— April 18, 2016

I have lived my entire life on every possible side of the Ohio State-Michigan college football rivalry, often cited as the greatest rivalry in sports. Through relocations and my admitted disdain for certain SEC-turned B1G (Big Ten) coaches, my loyalties have shifted through the years. I have always respected both programs, and I have made lasting friendships in both Columbus and Ann Arbor. Still, the intense battle between celebrity coaches Jim Harbaugh and Urban Meyer is quickly becoming the reincarnation of the “Ten-Year War,” In a rare moment of serendipity, however, the two college football powerhouse programs and coaches, along with a coalition of allies, are in the midst of a month-long campaign to undo one of the most hotly-contested decisions regarding the sport in many moons: the banning of satellite camps.

In addition to upping the level of competition and effort within the team’s roster and making attention-getting appearances in social media, rap concerts, and even WWE wrestling events, Harbaugh has taken the Michigan brand on the road to much consternation among his coaching contemporaries. Most especially, Harbaugh spent much of last summer and this past spring break hosting football events far away from the confines of Ann Arbor. These events, known as satellite camps brought the wrath of the opposition, and ultimately, NCAA authorities. Although satellite camps have been a common occurrence in college football for years, it was Harbaugh’s barnstorming through the South, and the highly-guarded ACC and SEC territory ala W.T. Sherman that brought condemnation, conducting camps last summer in Alabama, Florida, and Texas, followed by a spring-break camp this year at the famed IMG sports academy in Bradenton, Florida.

Needless to say, most of the ACC and SEC member schools had a big problem with Harbaugh’s “summer swarm” tour, which has helped to market Michigan in fertile recruiting soil, leading the well-endowed program to achieve one of the best recruiting classes in program history. Combined, the aforementioned conferences have won 10 of the past 11 national championships and four of the eight College Football Playoff representatives in the new format’s two-year history. Both the ACC and the SEC have carefully crafted rules protecting conference member’s recruiting territories and preventing other conference schools from poaching a particular school’s top local talent. Michigan, of course, is a member of the B1G conference, where there are no such restrictions.

Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze explaining his support of the satellite camp ban, saying that it will allow him to spend more time with his family. Photo courtesy of John Davis/The Oxford Citizen
Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze explaining his support of the satellite camp ban, saying that it will allow him to spend more time with his family. Photo courtesy of John Davis/The Oxford Citizen

The coach of the reigning national champions, Alabama’s Nick Saban said sarcastically if other schools adopted Harbaugh’s barnstorming technique, that there would be “113 camps in Atlanta, 113 in Tampa, Orlando, Miami, Dallas, Houston.” Fellow SEC coaches, Georgia’s newly-minted Kirby Smart, and Tennessee’s Butch Jones were especially vocal regarding Harbaugh’s spring break camp in Florida, causing brief, but amusing Twitter wars. Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze explained his opposition to the camps citing the fact that it would take away from family time in the offseason, saying “I’m selfish with my time,” prompting a classic blast from the Michigan coach, “You’ve got a guy sitting in a big house, making $5 million a year, saying he does not want to sacrifice his time. That is not a kindred spirit to me. What most of these coaches are saying is they don’t want to work harder.” Although less vocal about it, ACC coaches like Pitt’s Pat Narduzzi and Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher also expressed their discontent with Harbaugh’s travelling circus.

Despite Harbaugh likely winning the media feud between the coaches, the powerful SEC and ACC executives ultimately had their way on April 8th, when it convinced four of the five power conference representatives, and two of the five smaller FBS conferences to vote for a ban on the camps at an NCAA Division I Committee meeting. The B1G was the only power conference to vote against the ban, along with the smaller “group of five” conferences the American Athletic, the MAC, and Conference USA joining them. The battle was largely fought on geographic lines as the ACC, SEC, Big-12, PAC 12, Sun Belt, and Mountain West all voted against the ban, creating a Northeast and Midwest versus rest of the U.S. scenario. In reality the vote wasn’t as close at the 6-4 tally would indicate, as each of the power-five conferences’ votes count double, making the actual vote 10-5. The ban only permits coaches to conduct camps on facilities that they already own or use.

Although the ban was enacted immediately following the vote, the ruling will likely be revisited during the April 28th meeting of the NCAA Board of Directors. No ruling can be official without the Board’s approval and there has been much second-guessing and debate since the April 8th decision. Moreover, nearly every coach or administrator has some opinion on the issue, which has so far dominated off-season discussions even in places far from Ann Arbor. Among the most surprising of the committee votes was the PAC-12’s committee representative Dan Guerrero, UCLA’s athletic director, who voted in favor of the ban despite what had appeared to be a majority of member institutions opposed to the restrictions. Guerrero failed to explain his decision following the committee meeting. The Big 12 vote was not completely surprising, as the conference is dominated by southern football hotbed Texas, although rival schools in Oklahoma, along with Iowa State also opposed to the ban due to geographic limitations.

Even within the B1G, however, division exists among the programs, with Penn State coach James Franklin saying he is “actually okay” with the ban, and Western Division champ Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz also supports the ban. Of course the conference’s (and possibly college football’s) two most high-profile coaches and sworn enemies Harbaugh and Meyer are both strongly opposed to the ban, albeit for different reasons. Harbaugh, given nearly unlimited financial resources, is on a mission to inflate the Michigan name and impress a national, as opposed to regional recruiting base. This has proven successful both in the South, as well as in talent-rich New Jersey. For his part, Meyer is angry that the ban severs the longtime link between Ohio’s flagship school and the other regional schools in the MAC conference that orbit Columbus throughout the state and its neighbors. Meyer noted to ESPN that while OSU may find a handful of scholarship players from the camps, it’s largely the MAC schools that pick off the larger amount of Division I school players who are talented, but not Ohio State-level talented.

More surprising and confusing were the smaller Mountain West and Sun Belt Conferences’ votes, which appear to have nothing to lose by maintaining the status quo. The MAC is not the lone benefactor gaining access to many more recruiting avenues by attending these big-school camps. Even Freeze admitted after the vote that he lamented what the ban would do to the SEC’s relationship with Sun Belt coaches, wishing that the ban could be amended to only include power-five schools. Freeze said, “I just don’t want satellite camps for the Power Five. I am for non-Power Five schools being able to attend and evaluate.” In fact, much like the smaller schools benefit the most from the camps; it is likely the players who will suffer the most. As’s Andy Staples points out, a potential recruit could be seen by 15-20 FBS-level coaches at one camp, but as Meyer notes, of the prohibitive expense of attending individual facilities, “Do you send your kid to eight camps?” For his part, the Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson, cited as the conference’s decision-maker on the vote, declined to answer why he voted the way he did, although releasing a carefully-worded statement saying that the issue was hotly debated, but that the “Sun Belt football programs will continue to get better with or without these camps.”

Sun Belt Commissioner Karl Benson was one of two smaller conferences to vote in support of the satellite camp ban, with some questioning the logic behind the vote. Photo courtesy of USA Today
Sun Belt Commissioner Karl Benson was one of two smaller conferences to vote in support of the satellite camp ban, with some questioning the logic behind the vote. Photo courtesy of USA Today

In fact, as reality hits in that satellite camps have been an integral part of college recruiting for years, and even though Harbaugh certainly exploited the process to a bombastic degree, the April 8th vote may have been an even more emphatic overreaction that ultimately proves to be self-defeating. As days have now turned into weeks since the committee vote, and member institutions realize the ramifications of their vote, the ban will be certainly be re-examined at the very least. More likely, the ban will either be revised to allow some satellite camps, whether be in coordination with smaller schools, or to limit them within a certain geographical territory. It is also within reasons that the ban may be repealed outright, although that decision will likely enflame the southern strongholds even more. In the days leading up to the NCAA Board meeting, coaches and athletic directors will likely be selling their case and/or generating a furious debate throughout traditional and social media circles. Harbaugh for one will be continuing his publicity tour, speaking last Thursday at a coaches’ clinic sponsored by the Horatio Williams Foundation in Detroit, saying about a revision of the ban, “I think you’re seeing and will see more and more evidence. If we can keep the topic in front of people, we’re for that.”


Additional Reading:


ESPN – Dan Murphy

Fox Sports – Stewart Mandell– Andy Staples – Matt Wenzel

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