I'm not here to moralize about the downfall of college sports or convince you that "its just business, man". Nobody really needs any more of that (and if you do, hit up twitter or any recruiting message board and I'm sure they've got you covered). Recruiting is a messy game and it has been for many many years. If you're shocked that shady things happen in recruiting then you're really going to be floored when I tell you what they've been up to in those casinos in Detroit all these years.
So when news broke that Rashad Weaver and Erik Swenson decommited from Michigan's class in the last week and neither was very complimentary about how Michigan handled its end of things, the reactions tended to fall into two categories:
1. The people who truly believe that Michigan is better than this and that honoring a kid's scholarship offer even though you don't think he is a good fit for your program is the upstanding thing to do, even if it is possibly setting the kid up for a tough realization when he makes it to campus.
2. The people who acknowledge that recruiting is dirty pool, but that as long as these things are not technical illegal under NCAA rules then you're just maximizing your advantages like the SEC does.
Naturally, this is a false binary, but the internet at its most basic is an echo chamber for talking points taken out of context, so it is what we are left with.
But there is another way.
I think there are a few things that we can all agree on:
- Michigan's coaching staff did not believe that Rashad Weaver or Erik Swenson were great fits for this class, and that this has been known in the program for some time, although it is unclear exactly when and how the recruits were notified (less so in Weaver's case).
- This was preceded by a time when Michigan's coaching staff did think both these guys could play for Michigan, and this was communicated to the recruits in the form of scholarship offers that were verbally taken.
- Both commitments are a little more complex than a normal commitment. Swenson was a Brady Hoke recruit and was kept on by the new staff. Weaver was an unheard of camp commit over the summer. These aren't guys that visited a couple times and developed relationships with the staff before they committed. One was a de facto commit to Harbaugh and co., the other was a spur of the moment thing.
- Both commitments were made, presumably, on commitable offers given out by the staff to the player (no, "hey, why don't you hang on for a while so we can go after our plan A guys").
- Just because those offers are commitable, doesn't mean they come without qualifications or expectations.
- Regardless of either of these specific situations, this negative press will not be good for Michigan in future recruitments as kids and parents wonder about the sincerity of Michigan's staff while dozens of other coaching staffs throw fuel on the fire.
So what do we do with all of this? Can we reconcile these two disparate ideas in our head? Can this whole thing both feel really really shitty and also be a justifiable cost of doing business? Where should I direct my anger and disappointment?
I am here to tell you something that might shock you. Get ready.
It is entirely possible to approach recruiting as a cutthroat business and still treat everyone with respect.
Now, before you grab the torches and pitchforks to punish me for either going too far or not going far enough, take a moment to think about this. Have you ever been in a relationship where the person emotionally detaches and slowly begins not returning your calls or texts? Have you ever had a work situation sour as your new boss decides he isn't crazy about you and slowly begins cutting you out of the day to day work as a subtle hint that you're not valued there anymore? Have you ever wanted to tell someone how you felt but sat on those feelings because you were afraid of the confrontation, but that only ended up making things worse when things eventually came out? Of course you have, because you are human and we are notoriously terrible at being open and honest with others because of our own neurosis and self-consciousness.
In the end the issue isn't what Jim Harbaugh and his staff did to these kids. It was clear to a lot of people in the program that these recruits weren't a priority anymore (for whatever reason), and that's okay. Being a Michigan football player isn't for everyone, and if both sides aren't on the same page it is likely worth it to find a better situation. I would much rather see a kid have to swallow this bitter pill before signing day than after two miserable years in a program that doesn't have a place for him.
Ultimately, the issue comes down to communication and respect. Jim Harbaugh and his staff haven't given their side of the story, and they likely won't, but from what we have heard it seems pretty clear that the way this was intended to be communicated to the kids in question was anything but directly communicating it. Dropping contact, telling kids to take all their visits as a hint, and saying there is a 50/50 chance a scholarship is there for you in a couple weeks when you're supposed to sign is, as the kids say, a dick move.
You can be mad at Jim Harbaugh for this because it is not a nice way to treat people and if you were in those kids' shoes you would probably feel like crap too. Imagine: instead of getting ghosted by a girl you were dating you get ghosted by one of the most famous college football coaches in the country, who, while he isn't taking your calls is showing up just about everywhere else on TV or the internet doing zany stuff. How would you feel if you hadn't talked to the coach you committed to for months but saw him on ESPN climbing trees and having sleepovers with other recruits? How would you feel if you read rumors on the internet that you weren't part of Michigan's recruiting class anymore but you hadn't even heard as much from the man himself?
What Jim Harbaugh did was fine. It is how he went about things that sucks. These are not mutually exclusive ideas.
I want Michigan to be a national title contender year after year. I want to see Michigan beat OSU, MSU, and big time programs in bowl games. I want Michigan to get the best players. I just don't think it is too much to ask for the staff to be more open and honest with recruits. In something as complex and emotionally fraught as recruiting high school athletes to college programs (a massive decision for a 17 or 18 year old) at the very least you owe those kids the same respect you would want to be treated with if the shoe was on the other foot.
Jim Harbaugh did not owe Rashad Weaver or Erik Swenson a scholarship to Michigan to play football, no matter how long they had been committed to Michigan. What he owed them both was honesty and respect when he changed his mind.