Jim Harbaugh, Erik Swenson, And The Importance of Context

By Ty Duffy
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Erik Swenson revealed Michigan pulled his offer on Wednesday. It did not reflect well on Jim Harbaugh. Some columnists hammered him. Harbaugh, who can’t comment on the situation, employed a cryptic tweet disputing what had been reported.

"I say that because two weeks ago, when we began dropping major hints in our Inside The Fort columns, we were told that Swenson was no longer a Michigan commitment. We have also been told by multiple sources (though admittedly one of those sources on the Michigan side) that the Swensons were told back in November that he no longer held a committable offer."

"We were also told by a source out of Downers Grove that the Michigan coaches asked Swenson to camp at U-M over the summer so the staff could properly evaluate him (he refused) and we were told that it was understood that Swenson’s senior year would serve as an evaluation period because this coaching staff had never seen him in-person and wanted to know if he was a good fit for the program."

Both sides deserve a fair hearing. Where is the truth? Probably somewhere in the middle and wrapped in a miscommunication. The only things clear are his senior year sent him plummeting down some rankings and Harbaugh’s staff (if they did before) no longer wanted him.

It’s worth noting, however wormy, the practice is far from uncommon. Georgia’s new staff “went in a different direction” with an offensive line commit the same day. What happens at a major power like Michigan also happens at Western Michigan. In fact, Broncos coach P.J. Fleck pulled offers from every commitment when he took over. Of course being Jim Harbaugh and Michigan comes with greater scrutiny.

Again, college football is not a moral endeavor. It’s a professional one. Results get you fired. The same media members chastising you for poor standards will be calling for it. The only thing collegiate here is the branding. Supporting a college football program, as with many facets of life, requires cognitive dissonance. You can love your relatives, think they are fine people, and not want to be in the same room when a hot-button political issues comes up. Life is not as black/white as social media often portrays it.

Another issue here is the way recruiting is covered. A “verbal commitment” is not a contract. It’s a media construct to keep track of recruiting classes. The term holds little meaning when “verbal commits” plan to announce on Signing Day. It’s also clear a “scholarship offer” has different meanings. That could be a committable offer. That could be a “we’re interested if/then offer” contingent on happenings elsewhere. (Not the worst thing, provided communication is forthright and timely.) There’s substantial obscurity, since one side is, by rule, radio silent. The only thing firm happens on Signing Day (or upon early enrollment).

What do you make of Jim Harbaugh after this? Probably what you made of him before. Michigan fans will still love him. Michigan State and Ohio State fans will still think he’s a maniacal hypocrite. Others, beyond the odd sniping barb, will move on.

Sour narratives never get in the way of football. D.J. Pettway starred for Alabama in the title game. No one brought up Nick Saban letting him back on the team after involvement in an on-campus assault and robbery. Les Miles had the media on his side during his recent saga. No one brought up Jeremy Hill’s multiple chances. The enduring story for Michigan on Signing Day will be how they closed with top recruits and what it means moving forward.

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