IMG Academy coach Kevin Wright a fan of college visitors

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Jim Harbaugh has received the majority of credit/blame for one of the best/worst ideas of the past spring football cycle.

Regardless of where you stand on the merits of Michigan’s head coach taking his football team to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., to practice during spring break, you weren’t able to avoid the headlines it created. But what you might have missed was the man that helped spawn the idea in the first place.

Meet IMG Academy head coach Kevin Wright, a man with Indiana roots who returned to his home state last weekend as a guest speaker for the Notre Dame Football Coaches Clinic. Wright, the son of Indiana’s winningest high school football coach, Sheridan’s Larry “Bud” Wright, pitched the idea to Harbaugh back in October.

Wright, who left his job at Carmel (Ind.) High School to take over at IMG last year, started to consider the possibility of hosting a college football program after it had come up in discussions with the IMG staff. Canadian Football League teams already had started to make week-long trips to the academy. Now he just needed to find a college to do the same.

He discussed the concept with Harbaugh when he was recruiting IMG for its game against Paramus Catholic.

“We were sitting there just kind of talking and I threw the idea out to him and he thought about it for a second,” Wright said. “He said, ‘That sounds like a good idea.’

“He called back to the guys in the office and said, ‘Hey, what do you think about coming down here for spring break and having practice? Let’s look into that.’

“We all looked at each other and thought, ‘He’s really serious.’ He jumped right on it. It was very nonchalant. We were just talking, and he thought it was a good idea. He called right then and there.”

The move tied IMG to Michigan, but Wright’s football program has connections all over the country. When the NCAA recruiting calendar switches to an evaluation period, Wright said a normal day includes 20 or 30 coaches coming by the school.

“We’re Switzerland in regards to coaches that come in,” Wright said of balancing relationships with so many colleges. “We talk about this a lot with our kids. Last spring, we had 140 college coaches come in from all over the country. From November until February when coaches could come back in, we had over 160. We have a lot of flow with coaches from all over and all different levels. It’s a neat opportunity for all of our kids to have that type of exposure.”

So even though some programs in the South took a strong stance against Harbaugh bringing Michigan to Florida for spring break, those same programs will still be knocking on IMG’s doors to get a look at their players. There’s a reason why Tennessee extended offers to 20 IMG players in February. The program has become a talent magnet.

That’s likely among the unstated reasons why so many coaches took issue with Harbaugh's decision.  They were worried he would be getting a leg up on recruiting at IMG. As long as the NCAA allows it, Wright said he’d like to host more college football programs in the future.

“I know that the SEC coaches didn’t like it, and the ACC coaches didn’t like it,” Wright said. “We enjoyed it and hopefully we can get Notre Dame down next year too. I can tell you just from personal experience, it’s a little bit nicer in Sarasota/Bradenton during spring break than it is in South Bend or Indianapolis, Ind. We’re right there five miles from the Gulf of Mexico on the beach. It’s not a bad spring break for kids.”

A trip to IMG would be quite the leap from Notre Dame’s recent history of starting its fall camp at Culver Academies.

Wright has built relationships with several members of Notre Dame’s coaching staff during Brian Kelly’s tenure, including recruiting coordinator Mike Elston, who recruited the Indianapolis area while Wright was at Carmel, and running backs coach Autry Denson, who leads Notre Dame’s recruiting efforts in Florida.

The invitation from Notre Dame’s coaching staff to speak at this year’s coaches clinic meant a lot to Wright.

“I’m an Indiana kid so growing up here and living in Indiana most of my life, Notre Dame’s always been a very special place,” Wright said. “I’m probably one of the guys that really gets it in regards to what it’s all about. I didn’t attend Notre Dame, but just being here and growing up in the vicinity and I actually had the chance to speak several years ago at the same clinic.

“It’s exciting to come back home and especially to come back and get the opportunity to speak at Notre Dame. There’s a lot of big Notre Dame fans within my family. It’s a special deal.”

If Notre Dame’s coaching staff gets its wish, Wright will be sending more of his players to South Bend. The Irish inked two IMG stars in the 2016 recruiting class with safety Spencer Perry and running back Tony Jones Jr. This past weekend defensive end Joshua Kaindoh, a five-star prospect according to Rivals, also made the trip to Notre Dame with Wright.

Notre Dame already has offered seven IMG players in the 2017 and 2018 classes. And as more players transfer into the program, the number will likely continue to rise.

If IMG sounds like a college football factory, that’s because it is. The boarding school accepts student-athletes only with the goal to develop them for college. The football team, one of eight sports at the school, will play its fourth season as a varsity program this fall.

The peak of the program’s power has yet to be reached. Now with more attention on IMG, Wright and his players will have to live up to the hype that they’ve helped build.

“There’s not many people that haven’t heard of IMG and it does have kids’ recognition now,” Wright said. “It’s at the point now where high school players around the country know your names. Kids know your names. There’s a lot to that. To whom much is given, much is expected. There’s high expectations for our kids on the field, off the field and in the classroom.”

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IMG Academy head coach Kevin Wright also offered quotes on some of his players who have been recruited by the Irish.

Wright on seeing Notre Dame freshman safety Spencer Perry last week: "He looks good. The first thing I’ve noticed is he’s gotten taller and he’s gotten cut up. They’ve done a great job with the strength and conditioning program here."

Wright on Perry's work ethic: "He’s one of the hardest workers that we had. I’ll never forget, I hadn’t been there very long and I’m driving a golf cart around campus because you can’t drive through campus. It’s 566 acres and a little of it is preserved area, so you have to take a golf cart over a wooden bridge.

"I’m driving checking things out on a Saturday at about 8 or 9 o’clock and here comes Spencer walking back from the covered turf area to the dorm. He’d been getting an extra workout on his own on a Saturday night during spring practice.

"You’re getting a kid that’s very committed to being the best he can be. He’s as hard a worker as we had last year before he got hurt. He has a high ceiling from a safety standpoint because of his physical attributes.

"Seeing him today made me feel good because he’s continued to grow and fill out. He has a chance to be a very good player, but it all starts with the kind of kid he is and his work ethic.”

Wright on Notre Dame running back signee Tony Jones Jr.: "He’s a power guy, but he has good speed and good hands. He’s a guy that understands how to pass pro. He’s really a complete back.

"That’s not something that comes natural to a lot of high school running backs. They’re good with the ball in their hands, but Tony’s also great when it’s not in his hands. He’s great doing all the little things.

"I think he’ll fit right in as well. As I watch what Notre Dame’s done the last couple years offensively, I think he’s a really good complement to the type of guy that they’ve had. The ability to be that hybrid back who can do a little bit of everything, but is probably as much as a downhill guy that they’ve had over the last couple years.”

Wright on Notre Dame defensive end target Joshua Kaindoh: "He’s a very bright kid. He wants to study medicine when he gets to college. He’s a tremendous player but also a tremendous student. That’s one of the draws to Notre Dame."

tjames@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @TJamesNDI

IMG Academy head coach Kevin Wright, right, spoke at the Notre Dame Football Coaches Clinic this past weekend. Photo provided.