GUILBEAU: Sand Fight at the Margaritaville Café

Tiger Rag Featured Columnist

SANDESTIN, FLORIDA – Somehow I can’t see John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Clint Eastwood filming a western here on the sugary beaches of Destin.

“Sand Fight at the Margaritaville Café,” does not have a ring to it.

But this was where Alabama Sheriff Nick Saban aimed his sixty something six-shooter at Evil Jim Harbaugh of Michigan last Tuesday when I happened to be passing through town. This was not in a smelly saloon, mind you, rather it was in the “theater” room at the swank Hilton Resort, where the $outhea$tern Conference has been holding its annual $pring meeting$ and doling out its revenue by the million$ for year$. There was no poker table, though the stakes would trump anything on the World Series of Poker in Vegas. There was no piano nor a Miss Kitty.

But shots were definitely fired.

“We are the one sport that the high school coach still matters,” Saban said as the question-and-answer session moved from the NFL Draft and a possible junior day to the dreaded satellite camps, which are the most redundantly meaningless part of sports since pro days after private workouts, the NFL Combine and the Senior Bowl.

“And until this satellite camp issue came up, which I don’t really care to talk about, you still had to go to the high school,” Saban said. “You had to go through the high school coach.”

Famous last words – “which I don’t really care to talk about.”

As a sportswriter for three decades, I have to say one of the most entertaining fringe benefits – other than beach time here – I’ve been able to enjoy firsthand is Nick Saban actually making himself mad. He aggravates himself. It’s fun to watch. He brings something up, says he doesn’t want to talk about it and proceeds to do just that until he is seemingly frothing at the mouth. It’s quite a scene. You can almost see the blood rising to his forehead. Picture see-through pot with water coming to a boil gradually, incrementally.

“The players came to your campus if they were interested in learning and having a good camp where they can develop or if they were interested in your school from a recruiting standpoint,” he went on.

Then came Harbaugh in Maize and Black into the picture. He held camps in seven states last summer, focusing on Florida but including Prattville, Alabama, right outside Montgomery – a Saban Zone. Under the auspices of coaching the nation’s youth, it can be a recruiting bonanza for cold weather schools like Michigan. Nebraska, Notre Dame and Penn State have been spreading satellite camps around for years, but only one or two a summer. Schools like Alabama and LSU in warm weather environs have not needed such events. The players come to them.

Harbaugh, truly a brilliant guy and an innovator but a little strange, has taken the satellite camp to a new level. He is in the process of holding 39 of them this summer, including jaunts to American Samoa and Australia. And if there is any talent on Mars … “I’m coming to you,” Harbaugh is saying, “and I don’t care where you are or how much it costs.”

Will this turn into No. 1 recruiting classes and national championships for Harbaugh? Probably not. So what if he gets a guy or two via a camp. How do we know he wouldn’t have gotten somebody just as good anyway? Remember when defensive back Hootie Jones of Neville High in Monroe chose Alabama over LSU. Big woo. LSU signed defensive back Jamal Adams, who is better and hasn’t been arrested. It’s not like there are so few prospects out there that one needs a camp to find them. It’s almost like holding a convention in New Orleans to find out where the bars are. They’re everywhere.

Urban Meyer did not need satellite camps for Ohio State to win the 2014 national championship after he signed the No. 2 class in the nation in 2013 and the No. 3 class in ’14. Even Brady Hoke signed the No. 7 class at Michigan in 2012 and the No. 5 class in 2013 before Harbaugh. And he still doesn’t need satellite camps because he has access to film.

“I don’t care what you do at a camp. I care what your high school coach says,” Meyer said recently. Harbaugh could learn from Meyer.

Satellite camps, though, appeal to the rebellious, hell-with-you attitude that embodies just about all that Harbaugh is. He likes to tick people off, and he has got under Saban’s skin like no reporter ever has. Saban is even wary of Harbaugh, and Saban is rarely wary of anyone.

“I’m not blaming Jim Harbaugh,” Saban said cautiously. “I’m just saying it’s bad for college football. Jim Harbaugh can do whatever he wants. I’m not saying anything bad about him.”

But Saban is weary of satellite camps because it means more work for him, more change for him at 64. He didn’t go to Texas because he would have had to start his work all over again. He has been reaping and reaping at Alabama from the ground work he did there in 2007 and ’08 before winning national titles in 2009, ’11, ’12 and ’15. He also doesn’t like change, but he did expertly adapt to the new spread offenses. He didn’t beat them. He joined them when he hired Lane Kiffin to be his offensive coordinator.

Satellite camps just get his head spinning. It is a policing nightmare, and Saban is the best recruiter in history at not getting caught … or getting caught again.

This is why Harbaugh, who has needed NCAA compliance people with him to stop him from breaking recruiting rules at camps recently, should listen to Saban because Saban’s Alabama program has been caught here and there by the NCAA. The most recent case involves Alabama assistant coach Bo Davis, who just resigned because of alleged rules violations concerning improper contact with recruits.

“Amazing to me – Alabama broke NCAA rules and now their head coach is lecturing us on the possibility of rules being broken at camps. Truly amazing,” Harbaugh flippantly and stupidly tweeted after Saban’s Sandestin comments.

You should listen to Saban, Harbaugh. He was lecturing, but if anyone alive has a right to lecture on college football and rules and how to finesse rules, it’s Saban. It was Saban who quit the archaic two-a-day practices on consecutive days when he was at LSU. The NCAA later passed a rule stopping that. He knows what he’s talking about most of the time. You don’t.

Satellite camps are a Pandora’s Box of potential violations, according to Saban, because one cannot control what happens off campus as well as on campus.

“Anybody can have a camp now,” he said. “If they have a prospect, they have a camp. And they can use you to promote that camp because Ohio State’s coming. Alabama’s coming. Somebody sponsors the camp. They pay them the money. What do they do with the money?”

Saban also made one of the smartest comments about satellite camps to date. “By doing what we’re doing now, we’re doing what we’ve done in every other sport we complain about every day,” he said. “It’s like AAU basketball. That’s what is happening out there.”

College basketball is easily more corrupt than even college football because of seedy AAU basketball and its hangers-on and player entourages and the connections with shoe companies. See LSU’s 2015-16 season.

“It’s a mess,” Saban said. “I mean this is the wild, wild, west at its best because there have been no specific guidelines to how we’re managing and controlling this stuff. The NCAA says you can’t recruit through third parties. And that’s exactly what this is doing – creating all these third parties who are going to get involved with these prospects. And then who gets exposed on that? I go to a camp. I’m talking to a guy who I don’t know from Adam’s housecat. He’s representing some kid because he put the camp on, and I’m in trouble for talking to this guy. And who even knows if the player paid to go to the camp. Is the NCAA going to check that? What kind of compliance is at these camps?”

I never heard of Adam’s housecat, but Saban is the best person to listen to in this case. Someone whose program has broken rules here and there tends to know not how to break them again, while bringing in No. 1 classes virtually annually.

What Harbaugh really needs to do is look into just how much satellite camps will actually help his program.

“I don’t know how much they benefit anybody,” Saban said. “All the people say, ‘This is creating opportunities for kids.’ Well, this is all about recruiting.”

And since when did recruiting need more bullets? Harbaugh will sign kids from Florida and Texas by being in their homes – not by going camp crazy.

Thank goodness Les “Gabby Hayes” Miles showed in Sandestin for much needed comic relief. He was asked if had tried to keep other SEC schools from holding satellite camps in Louisiana in this “Wild, Wild West” remake.

“If I could, we’d hoist small caliber weapons,” the Mad Hatter said.

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Glenn Guilbeau

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