Jim Harbaugh and Luke Fickell never figured to be on each other’s Christmas card list, given that Harbaugh is a tried and true Michigan Man and that Fickell was born in Columbus and spent all but a handful of years of his adult life in scarlet and gray.
But now the two have a legitimate reason to dislike each other
The source of the beef is the Transfer Portal and the NCAA’s incredibly inconsistent application of the waiver process.
First, let’s back up a bit.
James Hudson signed with Michigan out of Toledo as a 4-star defensive tackle prospect in the Wolverines’ 2017 class, but was quickly moved to defensive line. This was a difficult transition for him, especially given that Greg Mattison served as both his area recruiter and his position coach and the two had grown close.
Fast forward to 2018, and after a win over Michigan State in which Hudson was passed over as Michigan’s first tackle off the bench, Hudson and his family met with Harbaugh to inform the coach that Hudson was struggling with depression. According to the family, Harbaugh reacted coldly, didn’t believe their accounting of his mental health struggle and essentially told him, “Well, if you don’t like it here, there’s the door.”
“Coach Harbaugh never reached out after that,” Glenda Hudson told The Athletic. “Not that I expected them to beg him to stay or anything, but I guess I would have expected them to dig a little deeper to understand why. They kept saying they didn’t see this coming, so I guess I expected that they would have tried to figure out what was going on. But they never did.”
Hudson announced he was transferring on Dec. 1, and on May 14 he revealed the NCAA had denied his initial waiver. On July 27, Cincinnati announced Hudson’s appeal was denied, meaning he would sit out the 2019 season.
Fickell was miffed, assuming that when Justin Fields was approved for immediate eligibility at Ohio State that everybody would be approved. Turns out the floodgates were opened by Fields and pretty much closed after Tate Martell was approved at Miami.
Cincinnati blamed Michigan for Hudson’s denial, saying that they assassinated Hudson’s character on his way out the door.
“It’s like a junior-high relationship: ‘You broke up with me, so I’m going to tell everybody that you did this, this and this.’ What grown-up does that?” Fickell said. “They responded with a junior-high comeback. I was shocked. Shocked. That if somebody said something about you, that you would then respond back by trying to bash a 19-year-old on things that were hearsay?
“It sounds a little bit like ‘A Few Good Men.’ Yeah, he was on the first flight out the next morning. That’s why I’m pissed and I want to say something,” Fickell added. “For you to get in a junior-high battle and say things about a kid, whether you believe him or not, you’re taking shots a kid who is struggling. And who am I to say how much? But he’s struggling, and to say that, it hurt the kid. Big time. It was hard. I know a lot of this stuff should be done behind closed doors, and I’m not calling people out. But when they took a shot at the kid, it was really disappointing. Really disappointing.”
Fickell wasn’t entirely off base. Harbaugh went on the radio in July and said:
“And the other piece that bothers me about it is, the youngster that says ‘this is a mental health issue, I’m suffering from depression.’ Or that’s a reason to get eligible. And once that’s known that ‘hey, say this or say that’ to get eligible. The problem I see in that is that you’re going to have guys that are, ‘OK, yeah, I’m depressed. I have mental (health issues). They’re going to say what they’ve got to say. But then down the road, I don’t see that helping them if that’s not a legitimate thing and nobody would know.”
Harbaugh has said he wasn’t talking about Hudson specifically, but it’s hard to read those comments and not think of Hudson.
For the record, Harbaugh has also said all players should be given a one-time waiver to transfer and play immediately.
Despite that, Cincinnati believes Hudson’s waiver was denied because Michigan — despite stopping short of outright denying it — did not support his claim. “All the power is in the hands of the school a player is leaving,” Fickell said.
Harbaugh viewed those comments and has lodged his own.
“I read Luke Fickell’s comments,” Harbaugh told the Detroit Free Press. “Unless I’m reading them wrong or mistaken, I believe he’s under the impression that these waivers are decided, coach to coach, in some kind of deal fashion,” Harbaugh said. “That is not the understanding that I’m under. I’m under the understanding that the NCAA decides these waivers. Unless (Fickell) has something that he can bring forth and share and enlighten us and the entire football world, I would really like to know what that is because he called me in March and he wanted to know about the position switch that James was switched from defensive line to offensive line.
I read the article, he asked a question in the article. What’s most important? Your personal beliefs, or what’s in the best interests of the kid?’ I can answer that. What’s most important is the truth. And if (Fickell’s) questioning what my personal beliefs are, then that’s what I believe. I believe in being forthright, honest, telling the truth.”
Harbaugh didn’t stop there.
“As I said, he tried to coach me into saying it differently, not saying it that way, and I told him, I’m not going to lie,” Harbaugh said, via the Cincinnati Enquirer. “That I can tell you. I’m going to tell the truth. Didn’t like the version that I was given.
Cincinnati visits Ohio State on Sept. 7. Harbaugh will certainly root for Fickell on that day, but it appears that will be the first and final time the pair find themselves on the same side.