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Rome trip shows Jim Harbaugh has resources, creativity to keep pushing envelope

The college football establishment took a swing at Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh last week. He didn’t wait long to throw a counterpunch.

Less than 72 hours after the NCAA’s five autonomous conferences voted to outlaw future spring practice trips like the one Michigan took to Florida a year ago, Wolverine players were told to prepare their passports. The team is headed to Rome.

Harbaugh tussled with commissioners and head coaches from other conferences during his first two offseasons in Ann Arbor while seeking ways to sniff out new competitive edges and put pressure on opponents to do the same. It appears that 2017 won’t be any different. His latest move should serve as notice that the firebrand coach’s creativity and deep pool of resources in this ongoing battle aren’t close to running dry anytime soon.

Michigan announced Monday that the football program will wrap up its spring drills with three practices in Italy in late April. The trip, which will take place after final exams, is being touted by the university and Harbaugh as “a great educational, cultural and international football experience.”

Three days earlier, representatives for the Power 5 conferences voted (58-20) to prohibit their peers from holding offseason practices at off-campus sites when school is on vacation. The motion -- part of a longer list of changes to give student-athletes more time away from their sport -- was first suggested a year ago when Harbaugh took his players to Bradenton, Florida, during their spring break to practice at IMG Academy. The new rule goes into effect in August.

Harbaugh and his players argued that the Florida getaway gave many athletes a warm trip they wouldn’t otherwise have been able to afford and shortened the amount of time they were practicing football when classes were in session last spring. It’s worth noting that the 15 student representatives with a vote last week were in favor (11-4) of allowing these types of trips to continue.

Opponents, like SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, said the trip wiped out one of the athletes’ few windows of free time during the academic year. Sankey told reporters Friday if a school wanted to take its players on educational or culture-enriching trips it should feel free to do so, but coaches shouldn’t be allowed to hold practices during that time. He said he saw a clear difference between Michigan’s spring break trip to Florida and the European exhibition tours that many NCAA basketball teams routinely take during the summer.

Michigan’s Monday response in effect was: “Well, OK. We’ll go to Europe then.”

Neither side mentioned the unspoken root of the conflict, which is that Michigan’s trip gives it an edge in recruiting that other programs are either unable or uninterested in trying to match. Most athletic departments wouldn’t be able to find the resources to send an entire football team overseas. Michigan’s best efforts to keep costs low during last year’s trip to Florida ended with a bill for nearly $350,000 to cover the excursion. It’s safe to say the budget for Rome will have to be much larger.

This year’s trip, unlike last year’s, isn’t taking place on the campus of a high school that produces several blue-chip prospects annually. But an expenses-paid week in Rome is a pretty strong selling point on the brochure for future players.

A trip like the one Michigan has planned for April won’t be allowed next year. Doing it now serves as a parting jab to show that the new rule as written does more to protect recruiting territory and athletic department budgets than student welfare. Essentially, Harbaugh is calling his opposition’s bluff and raising the stakes.

It’s not the first time the Michigan coach has challenged the way college football justifies its methods of doing business by pushing the letter of the law. He and his staff have searched for advantages with the way they set up practice time, their national signing day hoopla and the way they recruit prospects. Most famously, he tested similar waters with satellite camps last summer and new legislation is coming on that front, as well.

Around the time the Wolverines are stamping their passports at Leonardo Da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport in April, the Division I council will vote on a proposal to reduce the number of days coaches are allowed to spend at satellite camps from 30 to 10. If it passes, there’s little doubt that Harbaugh will be hunting for innovative ways to do more than his opponents during those 10 days. There’s even less doubt that Michigan and its current group of riled-up donors will find a way to support his plans financially.

The proposal would give Michigan’s coaching staff 20 new empty days on the calendar, which if anything should be more of a worry to those that like things the way they are given Harbaugh’s current track record.