Mike Vorkunov, SNY.TV
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PARAMUS, N.J. -- As the sun set on his nearly four-hour long football camp, Jim Harbaugh was still doing the same awkward dance he had been engaged in all day since he got to Paramus Catholic. At midfield he was once again asked to take a picture with a camper, this one younger and smaller than most. And again Harbaugh had to go through his usual lawyerly line of questioning.
"How old are you?"
"You're going to be a freshman in high school?"
"Then I can't take a picture with you."
He had been saying this for almost 15 minutes now, repeating the same line almost verbatim. The camp had ended and everyone wanted a photo with the man at the middle of it -- the one who somehow turned some measly clinics into the latest match to set aflame the clumsily-governed tinder box that is college football.
The NCAA doesn't allow photos, he repeated to camper after camper who came over. Instead, he set his own policy: pats on the backs and handshakes. There was one exception, to one nearly incredulous mom.
"We're allowed to hug," Harbaugh said.
If anything encapsulated this day, it was this. Harbaugh, Michigan's mad scientist in residence, the coach who caused the NCAA even more angst by turning the Wolverines brand into a traveling road show, was carefully gauging his every step and movement as he tried to press the flesh of the governing body's arcane rules without breaking them.
The camp at Paramus Catholic promised to the biggest and most high-profile of all the camps Harbaugh has held. He's developed especially-close ties to Paramus, nabbing the top-ranked player in the country, Rashan Gary, from there in January. And Thursday he's going to be the commencement speaker at graduation.
Harbaugh's satellite camps have gobbled up the oxygen during college football's dead period. They've led to Twitter storms, press conference feuds with Nick Saban, and escalated rivalries. But over the course of an evening in Paramus, watching as the Michigan coach and dozens of other college coaches ran one banal drill after another, it was a reminder that all the fuss was about what, again?
"We're doing this because we really enjoy it," Harbaugh said. "And you can believe that or not, I don't care anymore. I'm having more fun than I've had in six months. I'm like a pig in slop out here. That's why I personally am doing it. I don't know about anybody else."
Whether you believe Harbaugh's explanation or not depends on your level of cynicism. College football coaches have hardly earned the benefit of the doubt. If anything, their actions have conditioned us to assume their every move is a means to some end. Could these camps really just be about Harbaugh and his staff getting an opportunity to get back to plain old grassroots coaching, as he and his brother, John, insist? Sure. But there are the residual benefits too, other than the headaches it causes for compliance departments.
"Everybody keeps saying the obvious thing is this is all about recruiting and I disagree," Harbaugh said. "I've disagreed with that premise from its first inception. It's not about recruiting. If it really helped recruiting that much then people would have been doing this because it's been around for 10, 20, 30 years. We're just enjoying the heck out of coaching."
Getting ornery, he adds: "We could easily recruit them from Ann Arbor. This is about doing what's good for football and what's good for youngsters. Now I've said it a million times and believe or don't believe it, I don't really care anymore, I don't know what else to say about it."
Paramus Catholic has benefited from this relationship, too. If they're not a feeder school for Michigan, it looks like something approximating it. Chris Partridge, the coach who turned the school into a nationally significant program, is now on Michigan's staff. In September, they'll play a game at Michigan Stadium.
The symbiotic relationship has brought scrutiny and headlines. When a camp in New Jersey was announced without the presence of Rutgers -- the local state school -- Rutgers responded by organizing one 37 miles away. With Ohio State coaches in tow. New Jersey's high school coaches rallied around Rutgers, according to an NJ Advanced Media report.
Though no one at the camp claimed it to be divisive, it hardly seemed to match reality. The only Rutgers paraphernalia seen at Paramus Catholic was worn by one Scarlet Knights player who came to the camp to support his brother. Artur Sitkowski, a top-ranked quarterback recruit from the 2018 class recruited by Michigan and Ohio State, said he chose the Paramus Catholic camp over the other because it was just easier to get to.
Wednesday, James Vail, the high school's principal, again asserted that Rutgers had received an invitation to the camp in good faith. He said it while wearing a makeshift, homemade Rutgers basketball hat -- because he couldn't find an actual one in stores, he said. Vail said the hat was in support of Steve Pikiell, the new Rutgers basketball coach and former high school student.
"This is not a camp, an event to promote any particular college," Vail said in his opening remarks to the camp in a packed gymnasium. "The grounds of Paramus Catholic are not a proxy war for anyone else's agenda."
Deciding on the actual aggrieved party in the dispute is not easy, but it has allowed both sides to play the victim.
"I can't speak for Mr. Harbaugh but I think he's the type of guy that knows to excel and to succeed it means at time you're going to be attacked," Vail said. "Mediocrity never gets attacked."
Perhaps, more than any other reason, these satellite camps have elicited so much attention because there is nothing else to talk about. The NFL has become a year-round sport by turning the inane into media events. College football is slowly headed that way too.
So on a cool day in Northern New Jersey in the middle of June, Harbaugh is able to steal some attention. Does it help recruiting? He says no. So does Sitkowski, even as he speaks in awe about the chance to work with the coach for an afternoon.
And no one seemed more excited than Harbaugh himself. As he stood inside the gymnasium, introduced to a whole camp who already knew his name, he screamed and panted into the microphone. He compared himself to a boxer about to fight, to a horse about to run the Kentucky Derby, and to his excitement level just before he coached in the Super Bowl. It didn't seem crazy that maybe he even meant it as he threw himself into the moment.
Then, with his final words to the assembled high school campers and their parents, he sent everyone onto the field and waded into the masses, patting backs and refusing to stop his momentum. Rich Fisherman, a Michigan fan, found him on the floor and asked to take a picture. Harbaugh told him just to take it, unwilling to look into the camera and break any NCAA code, and kept on moving.
"The compliance people said I can't look at you," Fisherman said Harbaugh told him.
Afterward, as Fisherman looked into his phone, he saw a blurry photo of the coach, looking the other way -- a selfie gone awry. He reveled in his glory. He would send this to his son.
"The guy's a rock star."
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