Michigan recruiting has a perception problem

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Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines appear to have a communications issue. In sales, that’s never a good thing.

We’re talking about recruiting -- teenagers deciding where they will attend college -- but let’s talk about it like a business. Because, as high school senior Rashad Weaver noted while backing off from a commitment to Michigan on Monday night, that’s what it is. Weaver is the second prospect with a longstanding relationship with the Wolverine football program to publicly acknowledge in the past week that head coach Jim Harbaugh and company backed off their scholarship offer to him.

"I was informed by coach Harbaugh that there is a 50/50 chance that he would or would not have room for me (on National Signing Day)," Weaver said in a tweet. "I believe I’m better than that. But it’s OK, it’s all business."

Weaver committed to play at Michigan in June. He said he heard very little from the coaching staff over the next seven months until he was told this week that the school might not have enough scholarships to give him one if other (presumably more talented) players accept an offer in the coming week.

Weaver, based on his measured reaction and recruiting trips to other schools he took during the fall, seemed to suspect something like this was coming. Erik Swenson, another long-time Michigan commit who received similar news last week, says he was caught off guard. Several other prospects have backed off of commitments to the Wolverines as Signing Day approaches, but only Weaver and Swenson have publicly said that they were leaving because Michigan didn’t want them.

Whether the breakdown in communication is coming in conversations between Harbaugh and his former recruits or in one-sided accounts (School aren’t allowed to address specific recruits publicly until after Signing Day) of their departure, it’s not good for Michigan’s public perception.

The problem starts with the language of recruiting. Words like "offer" and "commitment" mean different things to different parties. Some recruits use a commitment as a placeholder. They secure a spot on one roster while continuing to shop for something better. Harbaugh’s staff has done the same since coming to Michigan, offering scholarships to prospects while continuing to look for someone more talented to replace them.

This is a common enough practice in recruiting that’s it hard to denounce as long as both sides know where they stand. It becomes far less palatable if either side is being misled. Is that happening at Michigan? It’s hard to say. Swenson certainly thinks so. Harbaugh can’t comment directly, but you can draw your own conclusions from the tweet he sent out the day after Swenson publicly complained.

Harbaugh’s reputation through most of his coaching career has been that of a brutally honest evaluator. His players say they know where they stand at all times. The events of the past week have called into question whether or not his recruits enjoy the same clarity. Suddenly a month full of entertaining and peculiar recruiting trail hijinks can be spun as calculated and disingenuous.

Whether that’s true or untrue, whether Harbaugh’s recruiting tactics are upstanding or dubious, those questions present a problem for him. The backlash will come if future prospects don’t feel they can trust that a scholarship offer from Michigan is as iron-clad as one from another school.

You better beleive that every Michigan commit for this recruiting cycle and every talented high school sophomore and junior seriously considering the Wolverines has received a text message from opposing coaches this week pointing out something similar. "Are you sure you’ve got a spot there?" They’ll say. "We want you, and we can guarantee we won’t back out on you like they’ve done to others."

That’s how the market corrects itself if in fact Michigan is misleading some of its prospects. Recruiting is sales, and any good salesman will tell you that perception often far outweighs reality. Harbaugh will have a chance to address those issues next Wednesday after he signs the first full class he’ll bring to Michigan. It will be interesting to hear his pitch.