BOCA RATON, Fla. -- Jim Harbaugh and Lane Kiffin have crossed paths a few times throughout their coaching careers, but not enough for there to be an established long-term friendship. Still, the two are somewhat intertwined considering what they have in common.
They are unapologetic in their beliefs, or for their personalities. They are unabashed in their opinions, whether you agree or not. They are constantly finding ways to push boundaries, even if that means souring the establishment.
These threads became even tighter on a rainy Monday in South Florida, when Harbaugh brought his entire staff to work the Florida Atlantic satellite camp with Kiffin and the FAU staff. Two coaches who have no use for what other people think about them trotted out to a soggy football field to evaluate high school football players.
With that, Kiffin earned more buzz for Florida Atlantic in a three-hour camp than quite possibly any FAU football game … ever.
“You guys are thinking I let these schools come in here because it’s helping us get better players to our camp. I never look at it that way,” Kiffin said. “I look at it as an opportunity for the kids.”
That might be so, but it also is undeniable that bringing Harbaugh into any situation creates immediate buzz. Any buzz for Florida Atlantic is good buzz at this point, especially if it helps with recruiting.
Kiffin has always been at places that essentially sold themselves, from Tennessee to USC to Alabama. Florida Atlantic is in a state with three Power 5 programs and Group of 5 competition in USF, UCF and FIU. It is still best known for Howard Schnellenberger building the program from scratch in 1998.
Over the 20 years since, Florida Atlantic has produced more losing seasons than winning seasons, but Kiffin is the first buzz-worthy head coach it has had since Schnellenberger. To capitalize on the buzz, there should be some strategy to capture a news cycle.
Enter Harbaugh, who has perfected the art during his time at Michigan, turning what already was a known commodity into a more nationally relevant brand that has galvanized his fans and his recruiting efforts, and drawn the scorn of other head coaches, too.
Harbaugh created such a buzz over satellite camps last summer when he held camps in more than a dozen states that the NCAA changed its legislation to restrict how many days coaches can work camps (now down to 10). Harbaugh created a buzz over taking Michigan to Florida for spring practice last year. He created an even bigger buzz when he took his team to Italy for spring practice this year.
“Coach Harbaugh, he thinks outside the box,” said Oregon coach Willie Taggart, who also worked the camp and is one of Harbaugh’s best friends. “He’s very smart in the things he does. A lot of people [were] upset with what he was doing, but there was nothing wrong with what he was doing. He was going out and selling his program but it was also going out and teaching young people and I think that gets lost in it all because so many people worry about competing when it comes to recruiting, and recruiting is not just camp. You’re not just going to sign a guy because you’re at the camp. You have to build those relationships. When I was at South Florida, he came down and we did a camp together. They’re spreading the Michigan brand all over by doing that. Pretty smart.”
Kiffin does not have the same means to spread the Florida Atlantic name. So hosting camps and inviting other programs became imperative. There was mutual interest between Michigan and FAU, though the staffs reached out to each other and not the head coaches. Asked to describe any parallels to Kiffin, Harbaugh offered up they both played quarterback before adding: “We’re all in the same profession. That’s the biggest connector. We’re for football, and we’re just coaching our teams and that’s a lot.”
FAU will host another camp Thursday, where seven Power 5 programs are expected to be represented.
That one won’t generate the same buzz as Monday without Harbaugh, who remained the center of attention throughout the camp and said coming into Florida was “hugely beneficial” for his program. Even afterward, he had a long line of players and fans waiting to take pictures, including one woman wearing an Ann Arbaugh T-shirt.
Kiffin had retreated inside.
Ultimately, the net effect of having Harbaugh with him in Boca might be nil. Long term, all Kiffin has to do is look at the Harbaugh model for some tangible proof for what it means to make buzz a near-constant around a football program.
“I like [Harbaugh] because he doesn’t care what you guys think or what anybody thinks,” Kiffin said earlier in the day. “He’s always done what’s in the best interest of his program, which is to me what you’re hired to do and you can’t worry about what everybody writes and what they think about you.”