BTN.com staff, March 5, 2016
(AP) Michigan fans spotted their hero and began to cheer. Jim Harbaugh jogged onto the field and waved his cap to acknowledge his admirers.
The Wolverines' spring break at IMG Academy, a one of a kind trip in college football that might never be allowed again, came to an end Friday night with an open-to-the-public practice that about drew about 5,000 members of Harbaugh Nation to the boarding school's campus.
"It really made it closer to a game than a normal practice," Harbaugh said. "It was great to see the stands full. Lots of maize and blue."
The Michigan coach's traveling road show has drawn the ire of the Southeastern Conference and the Atlantic Coast Conference, and the NCAA president sounded less than thrilled with Harbaugh taking his team south to practice during spring break.
But the players seemed to love getting away from the chill of Ann Arbor, and Harbaugh made it clear he doesn't care what others think of how he is running Michigan.
"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."
Once again, Harbaugh found a way to stay within the rules while pushing the envelope. He even said he'd consider going on the road for preseason practice, too.
"No one else is doing what we're doing. And that makes something special," running back Drake Johnson said.
Michigan paid IMG Academy to use its FBS-quality facilities for the week and used its 5,000-seat stadium for the final practice. The Wolverines needed to keep their distance from IMG students to avoid NCAA violations, but IMG football players were allowed to sit in the stands and check out Friday's show.
K.K. Hahn, a receiver at IMG who will be going to Ann Arbor as a preferred walk-on in the fall, said the energy around Michigan is palpable.
"It definitely feels like something is happening right now," said Hahn, who is from Bethesda, Maryland.
Joshua Uche, a linebacker from Miami and a Michigan signee, made the three-hour trip north with his high school coach to watch the Wolverines and spend some time with his future teammates.
"(Harbaugh) finding that loophole and doing something different, being outside the box, is pretty cool to me," Uche said.
The maize and blue faithful started streaming onto IMG's campus a couple of hours before the Wolverines took the field for a four-hour workout. Several hundred fans gathered outside the gates a half hour before the stadium even opened. One fan fired up the Michigan fight song on a small, old-school boom box to get the crowd going – a little.
The vast majority of those in attendance were way past college-eligibility age. Far more retirees and snowbirds than football prospects.
Matt Short, 28, and his parents – transplanted Michiganders – drove down three and half hours from Gainesville. Short had a regulation Michigan helmet in hand and he was hoping for Harbaugh's signature. Turns out, Harbaugh had to let down the autograph-seekers after practice. His compliance official told him it could result in an NCAA violation.
Short loves that Harbaugh has set up shop in SEC territory.
"He's against the grain and I think that's part of the reason he's had the success he's had," Short said. "He's done his satellite camps and you see the increase in our recruits. It speaks for itself when you see what he's done."
Aside from the setting, the practice was routine. Tackling dummies. Blocking sleds. Players darting through orange cones. A couple of long touchdown passes had the crowd buzzing.
"What was trying to be accomplished was developing as a team, further getting to know each other, getting to know your teammates," Harbaugh said. "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."
Not everybody is impressed with Harbaugh's innovations. The SEC and ACC would like the NCAA to outlaw the satellite camps and spring break trips. Critics look at his signing day starring Tom Brady and Ric Flair and this Florida folly and see a circus. Harbaugh does, too – but in a Harbaugh-kind-of way.
"As a youngster I remember the circus. I remember … looking forward to it. Saving my pennies up and dollars up because the circus was coming to town. Couldn't wait. Every circus that I ever went to, I always left feeling really great about it. Thought it was a lot of fun," Harbaugh said. "That's the way I feel about this. Much anticipated. It was a heck of a lot of fun."