Kirby Smart made a big splash when he choppered onto the baseball field at Atlanta’s Maynard Jackson High School in his now-well-known yellow helicopter so he could attend the first satellite football camp in the history of the state of Georgia on Thursday. But make no mistake about it, it was Jim Harbaugh’s and Michigan’s show.
Cedar Grove coach Jimmy Smith, the owner and operator of the Next Level Elite football camp, had the official number of Bulldogs’ coaches working the camp at 10. However, the only visible presence on the field and coaching during the three-hour event was Smart, assistant coaches Sam Pittman and Tracy Rocker, player relations coordinator Olten Downs and offensive quality-control specialist Kevin Beard.
And actual coaching might be a bit of a stretch. While they did offer sporadic instruction on and off throughout the day, it was primarily in support roles of drills overseen by Michigan coaches.
Meanwhile, the Wolverines’ contingent dwarfed all others. They sent 20 coaches — Harbaugh, about seven assistants and the rest of them support personnel — and the blue-and-yellow shirted throng emoted a strong presence over the entire proceeding.
The most powerful figure on the field by far was Harbaugh. His controversial remarks and bombastic tweets incited a territorial recruiting war with the SEC and effectively brought these camps into existence, and he definitely enjoyed bathing in the attention this moment brought him.
Wearing a Hank Aaron/No. 44 Atlanta Braves jersey, Harbaugh ran the camp as if it was being conducted on the UM campus back in Ann Arbor. Beforehand, he met with Aaron and former Ambassador Andrew Young and had them talk to the participants before the camp began.
“Great day, great day, a fantastic day of football,” Harbaugh said, still dripping sweat and signing autographs at midfield a half-hour after the camp concluded. “We were connecting to the football world and I feel like we connected to a lot of people in football today, from Georgia and Pittsburgh and Michigan and all over. It was a heckuva good day.”
With this camp located just a couple of miles from where the SEC conducts its annual championship game, Harbaugh was asked if he felt like he was invading SEC territory.
“No, not really,” he said. “It’s just great to be out in America. In my America you’re allowed to cross state borders. So it’s good to be here in Georgia.”
Indeed, a lot of colleges sent representatives to this camp. Pitt, which sent head coach Pat Narduzzi and five other coaches, probably had the next largest presence. But there were also coaches or representatives from Georgia Tech, Oklahoma State, UMass, Kennesaw State and Mercer, among several others.
Some of the time, those coaches jumped in and assisted with drills. Other times, they stood around and talked to each other as the Michigan coaches put the participants through some fairly rigorous work. A few
In all, about 290 kids attended, according to Smith. They paid between $40 and $50 depending on whether they pre-registered or walked up on Thursday. Smith estimated the walk-ups at “80-something.”
“The biggest thing is the kids,” Smith said. “Look at all these kids out here getting an opportunity to get coached up by Michigan. That’s who I’m happy for.”
As for Michigan’s domineering presence, Smith was unapologetic.
“When I first came up with the idea back in January, they said, ‘we’ll work it,'” Smith said. “They raised their hand first. But Georgia was here, too. They weren’t going to get left out.”
Not when there were recruits on the line. Two of Smith’s Cedar Grove players are Georgia commitments and participating in the camp — offensive linemen Netori Johnson and Justin Shaffer. Pittman, who would be their position coach at UGA, was always close by if not coaching them directly.
But the strong Michigan presence definitely had an effect on these prospects.
“It was better than I thought it was going to be and there were a lot of people here,” said Johnson, a 6-4, 348-pound, 4-star tackle. “Michigan came down here and they swarmed everything. All you see is yellow and blue everywhere. Even though its the state of Georgia, we were engulfed.”
Asked if it all had some level of influence on him, Johnson smiled and said, “I have a scholarship offer from the University of Michigan. It was great having them here, beautiful. Coach Pittman was coaching me up, too. But it did change my opinion of Michigan. I’m going to have to get up there and look around.”
The coaches from Georgia and Michigan — and most that were at Jackson High Thursday — headed South afterward to Lee County for the Elite Prospect Football Camp, another of the satellite camps that are suddenly popping up across the country. Cam Newton was also conducting a camp Thursday up the road in Cobb County.
Meanwhile, Smart had to leave the Next Level Elite camp early and take his chopper back to Athens. He had to get back in time for pictures with participants at his own Kirby Smart camp back on the UGA campus. They were supposed to start at noon. He actually lifted off from Maynard Jackson High at about 11:47 a.m., so he was going to be late. But he left the other Georgia coaches behind.
“I wasn’t doing it for show or anything like that,” Smart told DawgNation. “I just needed (the helicopter) to get from one place to another. I wish I could have stayed longer because there are a lot of good prospects here. But I can’t be in two places at once.”
At the end of the day, Harbaugh said he got what he came for in Atlanta, which was just the beginning of a hot and busy summer of camps for him and his staff. At present, they have 26 more camps nationwide they intend to visit, and more of them in the state of Georgia.
“These guys, as much as any I’ve seen of any in the country, they’ve got a real heart for football,” Harbaugh said. “They had the football faces; they were working and smiling at the same time; enjoying every minute of it. It was a joy to coach them, it was a joy to be around them. I was like a pig in slop.”
Harbaugh indicated that most are missing the point of these satellite camps.
“My dad coached for 45 years and I remember going to those same camps when I was in high school, and there’d be coaches from all different colleges there,” he said. “The thing I remember about it most was, anytime you see one of those logos on a shirt, it brought the opportunity that much closer to you. It was real, it was tangible. … The goal is the youngsters will learn some things they can take back over the summer to make them a better football player.”