Jim Harbaugh Works in a More Regulated Industry Than You

“His unique willingness to question the status quo will inevitably produce another loophole-seeking missile to upset his peers in due time.”

ESPN on Michigan Wolverine Head Coach Jim Harbaugh (April 2016)

Recruiting elite high school players is how college football programs remain relevant. When former San Francisco 49er Head Coach Jim Harbaugh accepted the same position in early-2015 at the University of Michigan, he brought a determination and will to do whatever he had to to vastly improve the flow of elite talent to Ann Arbor, MI. 

What he’s accomplished in just 16 months is highly instructive to any business or marketer that believes they lack the time, money or opportunity to stand out in their market, grab the attention of sales prospects and secure payment from newly-minted customers. His recruiting success is a reminder that you’re only limited by what you perceive to be limitations.

Way, Way Outside the Box

Even if you’ve never watched a college football game and don’t follow it, Harbaugh is a fascinating study in creativity and initiative. Since Harbaugh returned to his alma mater, I’ve been frankly amazed at how quickly he’s been able to combine creativity and enthusiasm to turbocharge the Maize and Blue brand among high schoolers (and national media). He doesn’t think outside the box; he thinks outside the box factory. Consider the constraints on what he can do.

A Playing Field of Extreme Regulation

It is a restrictive world in which world Harbaugh operates. The NCAA is a rules-driven bureaucracy that has created a culture so obsessed with compliance that South Carolina self-reported in 2014 an infraction involving serving “impermissible iced decorations on cookie cakes” to football recruits. If the financial industry were as closely regulated as college football and football recruiting, we might well have avoided the Great Recession of 2009. 

Yet, look at what he’s done; get tons of coverage, make Michigan cool again, secure the attention of in-demand players, and—most importantly—convince many to become Wolverines. It’s a combination of inventiveness, and ballsy chutzpah made notably newsworthy by the ubiquity of social media:

Convocation Speeches at Football Powerhouses 

Paramus Catholic High School  is in New Jersey. It happens to produce a stream of elite football talent. Rashan Gary, who was ranked the No. 1 high school football player in the nation for 2016, selected Michigan live on ESPN on National Signing Day. He follows Paramus alum Jabrill Peppers, now a redshirt sophomore at Michigan. 

To ensure that future talent in Paramus and surrounding area develop a Michigan brand affinity, Harbaugh will deliver the Convocation Address on June 9 at the graduation ceremony at the Prudential Center. Yes, other college coaches speak at graduations, but they usually wait until after their retirement. Speaking then is not quite as relevant to finding an elite defensive tackle, or two. 

Satellite Football Camps

Harbaugh was at Michigan for only a couple of weeks when this idea became public. It had two parts; appear as a guest coach at satelite summer camps in June, then take his entire team for Spring Break to the most fertile recruiting area in the country. 

Harbaugh’s eight-day “Summer Swarm” presence at 11 satellite camps in seven states in 2015 generated criticism from SEC coaches because he flew the Michigan recruiting flag when they usually take family vacation. Last month, he relocated part of the regulated Spring practice schedule 1,200 miles south to the IMG Academy, Bradenton, Fl. 

Coaching peers wondered how a college team could hold spring practice at a Florida high school but it wasn’t prohibited in the NCAA rules. Now it is. On April 7, the NCAA voted to ban both versions. The use of satellite camps is now prohibited; all camps sponsored by an FBS member program must take place at their school’s facilities or at facilities regularly used for practice or competition.

Sitting in on High School Classes

Google Sitting in on Classes in a High School Harbaugh. You get this story

Coaches have visited high schools for decades to meet with recruits. Most meet players in the Athletic Director’s office or speak with teachers and counselors in the school’s administrative offices. Harbaugh? Harbaugh will sit beside recruits in their actual classes. During the most recent recruiting period, he visited De La Salle, a Concord, CA football powerhouse to meet two prospects. He sat in Marcella Fox’ World Religions class beside defensive line prospect Boss Tagaloa. His photo and his teacher’s tweet were quickly retweeted by the thousands. He also hung with tight end Devin Asiasi.

Sleepovers at Recruit Houses

Depending on your perspective, you may think this creative or just frankly weird. 

Harbaugh had two highly publicized January sleepovers at the homes of recruits. One was with Phoenix defensive end Connor Murphy whom he had previously babysat while waiting years earlier for an in-home with Murphy’s older brother Trent who played for Harbaugh at Stanford. The other was with a kicker Quinn Nordin from Rockford, MI, who was then committed to Penn State. 

“Under the exact rules, he’s going to be at my house at 12:01 [a.m. Thursday], he said,” Nordin said “He said we can watch a movie, see how well we gel and he said he would sleep over after that. I said ‘Coach, I have Penn State stuff all over my walls.’ He said, ‘Tell you what, I can help you take it down.’”

Signing Day Extravaganza

When his Class of 2016 sales efforts were finally completed, Harbaugh organized a modestly entitled Signing of the Stars” event to celebrate its third-ranked class. Third place was a pretty incredible achievement given its 19th ranking in 2014. 

“But then folks got a load of Jim Harbaugh’s version of signing day. At Michigan, Barnum met Bailey and an event called the “Signing of the Stars” raised the recruiting bar to unchartered heights.”

Rivals Offer Mixed Reactions to Michigan’s Signing Day Show, Changing Landscape of Recruiting

It was different than other schools, featuring actors, musicians, Michigan alumni and even people not associated with Michigan, such as former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz. Tom Brady, Charles Woodson, Mike Ditka and Derek Jeter attended, while Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn appeared via video. It also raised a reported $100K plus for charity.

Whatever it Takes

Harbaugh visited cornerback David Long’s house in Los Angeles in January. They were playing catch when the ball got stuck in a tree. The 52-year-old coach climbed up to retrieve it, yet another widely shared image on social media. He was a top ten player at his position, the ball was stuck; what else would you do?


“Know the rules of the game. I know the rules so thoroughly, know where we can gain an edge”

Jim Harbaugh 

It was very good. Connor Murphy signed with Southern Cal while Tagaloa chose UCLA. Everyone else opted for Michigan, including the former Penn State-bound kicker. That’s closing.


1. You Can’t Live on Past Success Forever

The Michigan Wolverine’s last national championship was in 1997. That’s an eternity for this program.

>>> If you’re a marketer doing the same thing as you did in 2010, your professional desirability as an employee is ebbing.

2. When Your Market is Changing You’ve Got to Change

Demographic change doesn’t reward the status quo. In the four decades between 1970 to 2010, Florida’s population almost tripled, Georgia’s and California’s doubled and Texas’s more than doubled. The populations of Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Pennsylvania – Michigan’s traditional recruiting footprint barely grew. The states of the Southeastern Conference, in particular, generate more talent than any other region. 

>>> You need to figure out how to get noticed in your market. If your market has changed, moved, or is progressively considering vendor alternatives, update your strategy ASAP.

3. Impactful Tactical Execution Doesn’t Have to Be Expensive

Sure, the televised recruiting extravaganza and IMG Spring Break Camp were very expensive, some of Harbaugh’s ideas are very inexpensive. 

>>> There are lots of cheap and easy projects you can do to stand out in your industry. This is true for almost every industry. Perhaps not if you’re trying to compete against Elon Musk in electric vehicles or Richard Branson in interplanetary travel, but it is for 99% of those on LinkedIn.

4. Amplify Your Voice

True, Harbaugh’s football pedigree is a publicity generating advantage you undoubtedly lack, but you can plan promotional activities and marketing programs where you leverage others. 

>>> Social media and regular media are extremely helpful so don’t execute in a vacuum. Use others, such as partners and customers to extend your story.

5. Be Relatabile to Your Audience

Harbaugh is a middle-aged married guy with six kids. Yet, he’s also a guy whose fanatic love for football is genuine and clear to anyone. He’ll do the video game stuff, but I also imagine that he’s pretty convincing when he talks with parents about how he can help smart kids succeed academically in competitive schools and athletically in competitive conferences. 

>>> Be relatable to your audience. Be genuine. Look at your customers as more than the ROI of a lead gen campaign, or the next increment to higher MRR.

6. Hard Work and Effort Don’t Require Talent or Money

Creativity and enthusiasm are tremendous opportunities for every business. They’ll take you a long way. I’ll stop short of calling them an “equalizer” if your competition’s marketing budget is 50-100X yours, but you can do a lot with a little. Even if you slashed Harbaugh’s recruiting budget to Youngstown State’s, you know that he would a lot with a little.

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