The latest Jim Harbaugh media firestorm came when Michigan intended to hire Michael Johnson, a California high school coach who happens to be the father of a blue-chip quarterback prospect in the 2019 class. Harbaugh was attacked by a number of media members for appearing to skirt NCAA rules, and then chose to fire back at Paul “Pete” Finebaum.
Pete Finebaum, the unabashed SEC water carrier, really needs to get his facts straight. #AlternativeFacts— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) February 17, 2017
Finebaum, as usual, was playing a game. Having perfected the role of trolling passionate fan bases, and with most of the SEC already aware of his game, Finebaum figured out in recent years that Michigan is virgin territory. Like the brown tree snake let loose in Guam or the Burmese python in the Everglades, he has been unleashed on an unsuspecting population.
This time, Finebaum’s case that “there’s no other reason why he would hire this man,” other than wanting a leg up with a quarterback prospect, is ludicrous. Johnson was Harbaugh’s quarterback coach in the NFL, had an 11-year NFL coaching career, and was a coordinator at UCLA. If anything, he’s over-qualified to be a college position coach.
In the end, Johnson decided to take a position as the wide receiver coach at Oregon. It’s fair to wonder whether there will be any criticism of Willie Taggart for hiring Johnson, or if this debate only pertains to coaches who have tangled with Nick Saban and other SEC coaches.
Meanwhile, the NCAA is considering a proposal that would ban college teams from hiring high school coaches of recruits (“during a two-year period before a prospective student-athlete's anticipated enrollment”) to “non-football coaching” roles, such as to analyst positions, as is common around the country. The American Football Coaches Association has endorsed this. This prospective rule, combined with the delay in approving another rule that would expand coaching staffs, meant Michigan could not hire Johnson without risking its ability to recruit his son.
So should the NCAA prohibit teams from hiring high school coaches and then recruiting players who played for those coaches?
The concern is that this amounts to a de facto inducement to recruits. It arises out of the NCAA’s ban on paying players. In a free market, schools would compete directly with one another to offer the best financial deal for elite recruits. The money would go to the people who create the expanding mushroom cloud of revenue. However, because the NCAA created the concept of “student-athletes” as a way to avoid paying worker’s compensation, the money cannot find its proper destination.
As a result, like a dammed river, the revenue stream ends up everywhere other than its natural home. Athletic departments pay coaches massive salaries, engage in otherwise pointless infrastructure projects (the latest example: Georgia moving the locker rooms at Sanford Stadium to make room for a recruiting lounge), hire bloated administrative staffs, and provide lavish funding to non-revenue sports. The rule against paying players anything other than scrip from the company store amounts to an income transfer from players to members of other groups, all of whom tend to already have more resources.
So if revenue generated by a five-star from Southwest Atlanta or Palestine, Texas is going to augment the marketing staff “so young fellas like yourself can wear a suit and a tie, and have a job,” then why shouldn’t it also be used to hire high school coaches into administrative positions?
1. It provides a way for high school coaches to better themselves. College coaching positions have better salaries and more opportunities for advancement. The football edition of the American Dream should entail a coach doing well in high school, then moving up from a college staff position to a position coach, coordinator, and head coach. Why should the NCAA deny high school coaches the opportunity to be characters in a modern Horatio Alger story just because they happen to coach blue-chip recruits? Why penalize the coaches at the most talent-laden programs?
In an ideal world, players would get paid directly and would not have to divert the value they create. However, if a player is going to have to be on the wrong end of a wealth transfer, then better the transfer go to a coach who helped turn the player into a blue-chip recruit and who has a good relationship with the player, as opposed to, say, another raise for the athletic director.
2. It allows college coaches to make informed hiring decisions. College coaches watch a lot of high school film. They should be able to form impressions as to how well-coached the teams on the film are. Shouldn’t those college coaches be allowed to use those impressions? If a high school coach has done a great job at developing his players, then why should he be punished by a rule that deters college programs from hiring him?
3. It gives leverage to blue-chip recruits. College players are already hurt by a rule that prevents colleges (or even third parties, if the NCAA moves to the Olympic model) from paying them their market value. The one time when they have leverage is when they are being recruited. A significant aspect could be to get their high school coaches hired by their new schools. A five-star could declare he will only sign with a school that hires his coach. If the player can’t be paid directly, he should at least be able to direct compensation in a direction that he prefers.
There are all sorts of examples where players get to use their leverage in getting friends hired. Schools have been known to give scholarships to teammates and friends of elite recruits. Why would getting the high school coach a job be any different? If Greg Maddux can have a personal catcher, then why can’t top recruits use their sway to bring coaches with them?
Chris Partridge’s career path is a great example as to why the NCAA should not deter high school coaches. Michigan hired Partridge — the head coach at Paramus Catholic, the high school that produced Jabrill Peppers and Rashan Gary — in early 2015. Partridge moved from a staff position to become linebackers and special teams coach in 2016 and was just named the recruiter of the year by 247Sports. Partridge’s star is on the rise because the NCAA had not stepped in to close off his path.