Jim Harbaugh has been predictably successful in ruffling feathers since taking over Michigan. Be it through supporting a campus screening of "American Sniper" or irritating Nick Saban by appearing in satellite camps in the Tide legend's own backyard.
These satellite camps are a very quick response from Harbaugh to the reality of Michigan's current situation in the college football world. He's trying to recruit national championship caliber talent to Michigan as quickly as possible in an era when Urban Meyer has a stranglehold on the Wolverine's traditional recruiting base in Ohio and James Franklin has Penn State competitive in other talent-rich Big 10 areas such as Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
The plan for Michigan to eat well in this climate is to recruit nationally, picking off select players from Texas, the South, or Florida while relying on existing staff connects, building new connections with players and local coaches through satellite camps, or simply through Harbaugh's own personal brand.
Michigan is clearly interested in building roots in Ohio long-term to open up their classic talent pipeline but there may be another route available.
In fact, there may be another option for schools all over the country that don't benefit from having huge talent bases in their own backyards like most of the SEC programs do. Namely, to build up their own local talent by funding local skills coaches.
The hidden impact of private skills coaches
The emergence of the privately hired QB guru is a well documented phenomenon that gets expansive coverage in "The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks" by Bruce Feldman. In Southern California in particular, ex-players and private instructors with a knack for teaching the quarterback position have exploded across the region, enriching themselves by taking on wealthy kids as their pupils and teaching them to play the position. Consequently the state is loaded with quarterback prospects every year.
Much of the reason for Texas' tremendous amount of high school football talent is found in the fact that the public school systems invest heavily in the sport and so the talent is highly developed. When added to the fact that Texas is one of the most populous states in the Union you have a recipe for a recruiting hotbed.
In Florida, it's all about the private skills instructors, particularly in South Florida where the population is tightly packed and there are multiple private coaches available within easy driving distance for all young players. Florida has a similarly strong football culture to Texas but the private instruction of the skill athletes make it everyone's favorite destination for finding receivers and defensive backs.
However, if you go up north into Big 10 country you won't find as many big high school football stadiums or highly paid football staffs, particularly outside of Ohio. Detroit, the neighboring metropolis to the University of Michigan, is not a community that is currently built to find and develop football players and send them to colleges.
In fact, in many areas in the northern part of the country the best athletes opt for basketball and fill out the Division II college ranks filled with premier athletes that might have seen Big 10 scholarships had they pursued football rather than roundball.
Schools like Michigan and Notre Dame that have a strong national brand do have the option of going south and pulling kids from the areas with stronger football cultures like Texas, Alabama, or Florida, but what if they were to also start investing locally?
Option 1: Build up football academies to develop local talent
Presumably there would be more skills coaches working the Detroit metro area, or other currently less productive talent pools, if there was financial gain to be had in working there. However, if there is undeveloped talent in a given region such as Detroit, there are a group of people that might be interested in developing it.
The same types of boosters that donate money to upgrade facilities, pay coaches top money, or secretly pool money to pay players could probably be convinced to invest in developing local players and improving a university's natural recruiting turf. Especially since it would be much easier to guide or encourage those players to attend the right universities than to do so with players across the country.
Essentially the task is to build a football culture that makes the sport a viable option for athletes hoping to receive top educations and gain professional opportunities. Obstacles in our example of Detroit include lack of community funds and cold weather that makes outdoor sports a less exciting option for young athletes.
Building a football academy in the hopes of developing local talent would require hiring top skills coaches to the area, building indoor facilities to make football an appealing option in the long winter months, and providing scholarships to promising players in the event they lack the cash to pay a private instructor.
In an area like South Florida with a strong youth football league, big time high school football, and seven on seven summer leagues it's easier to identify top players and the ones that could boost a skills coach's resume generally don't struggle to get instruction at a workable rate.
It'd be difficult to match that, but increased investment in summer seven on seven tournaments and sponsoring teams would make for a strong start.
In an area like southeast Michigan it could be possible, with intentional investment, to build more football infrastructure to harness and develop the local talent and this could only be to the University's benefit. That said, building a youth football culture inorganically with booster cash and intentional efforts is surely a tall order for many programs and perhaps less cost effective than just throwing more cash into national recruiting and evaluation.
However there may be another way for programs that can't hope to beef up local talent to still make greater use of private instructors to improve their football programs.
Option 2: An extra offseason program
College football arms races have reached the point where programs often lament the NCAA regulations on how many staff they can hire to assist in coaching up the scholarship and walk-on athletes.
Meanwhile, few things make college fans more excited than the news that one of their quarterbacks plans to spend some of his offseason working with George Whitfield or another QB guru. It's hard to believe that every college player that's working with these famous coaches is doing so without receiving any "improper benefits."
What if boosters and coaches were much more deliberate about funneling their players to select private coaches in the offseason while covering the cost? If boosters can figure out how to buy players homes or cars without seeing the money traced then surely they could shell out money to help a player hone his craft.
For a program like Nebraska that has great tradition and alumni support this could be a more viable strategy than hoping that having boosters privately hire skills coaches in the hopes of turning a state of 1.8 million into a sufficient recruiting base for the Cornhuskers to rely on for building Big 10 championship rosters.
If the advantage for schools recruiting Texans or South Floridians is that their players arrive at college with more highly developed skill sets than players from other regions than one logical response from outsider programs is to find ways to get their players extra skills development after they arrive on campus.
If coaches were willing to muddy the waters of NCAA violations and plausible deniability they might build relationships with skills coaches that could then focus offseason training and development around skills that would play into the schemes and tactics of the University.
Filling the development vacuum
None of these tactics would be particularly above board or ideal for developing young American athletes but this is the vacuum that's been left open due to the professional leagues relying on universities for player development.
While college football certainly benefits from having future pros play the game and highlight the best teams, it's simply not institutionally designed to provide minor league style development for those players. There are countless athletes that benefit from the popularity of college football as it allows them to receive a free education but there are others for whom the classroom requirements, practice limits, and lack of financial compensation is a costly waste of their time.
Since colleges already push their players to work on football far more than the "countable hours" allowed by the NCAA it only makes sense that they would eventually start to work with top notch coaches in the uncountable hours with the tacit approval of the paid University staff and the financial support of the boosters.
And as for which programs look to take advantage of private football tutors and to what extent they utilize them, that remains to be seen. Big 10 schools that are long on resources and short on local talent would be likely candidates to see how far these strategies could take them. As long as college football is bound by NCAA regulations this frontier will continue to find new ways to fill the vacuum of player development.