‘A lesser man would’ve been dead’: One night with Jim Harbaugh
MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – Michigan is here, and 400 kids have no idea what they are getting into.
The latest stop on Jim Harbaugh’s world tour is Oakland High, 38 miles from the heart of Nashville. It’s his second camp of the day; his jet flew in from the Dallas-Fort Worth airport a few hours ago.
This evening’s facilities are expansive and expensive: There’s a natural-grass game field, a $200,000 video board, a fenced-in, natural-grass practice field and an indoor facility with artificial turf. They’re all part of a larger athletic complex that includes back-to-back baseball and softball stadiums.
Harbaugh begins camp on the game field. He’s wearing a navy-and-powder-blue Tennessee Titans jersey. Specifically, the jersey of Delanie Walker, his former player with the San Francisco 49ers.
(The 52-year-old Harbaugh has been wearing a regionally related sports uniform at every camp stop. Earlier today in the Dallas area, he wore the jersey of Texas Rangers pitcher Derek Holland. In the Atlanta area, he paid tribute to former Braves star Hank Aaron. In New Orleans: Archie Manning. And so on.)
Standing at midfield, he switches on a microphone so folks in the bleachers can hear him.
There are approximately 1,000 people in attendance tonight, counting the parents, campers, food-stand employees, high school coaches and Harbaugh’s massive collection of college coaches, which includes Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason, representatives from Tennessee and a dozen other schools.
Thunderstorms passed through not too long ago, and the sky is ominously dark. It’s football time.
4:58 p.m. | Harbaugh begins by calling out an anonymous NFL coach who recently said Division I football requires too much of a time commitment.
“I think he picked the wrong profession to be in,” Harbaugh said. “If you don’t like coming out here and coaching and working and teaching, you probably shouldn’t be a coach.”
He explains that his coaches are ready and excited for tonight.
Goal No. 1: “Nobody gets hurt.” The players solemnly parrot the pledge, “I will not get hurt today.”
Harbaugh then asks, “Is there anywhere else you’d rather be?”
Players (halfheartedly): “No.”
Harbaugh: “Anywhere at all?”
The players grunt.
Harbaugh: “Heck no! Ya like football!”
First task at Jim Harbaugh's satellite camp in Murfreesboro, Tenn…. take a lap. pic.twitter.com/xaW7IULV0d
— Alex Martin Smith (@asmiff) June 14, 2016
5:09 p.m. | Someone is hurt. Harbaugh had the kids run a lap around the field, and now they’re competing in 125-yard races. A poor offensive lineman comes up lame before the finish line. He’s grabbing his left hammy. He looks done.
5:17 p.m. | The rising juniors and seniors are pulled away to the practice field, where more sprints commence.
Harbaugh conducts the “fastest man” challenge, in which he runs players through various heats and matches up the best against the best. 5-foot-8 wide receiver Jeffery Wood from Knoxville (Tenn.) Catholic defeats all challengers, earning him quite a distinction.
“The fastest man in Tennessee!” Harbaugh yells, grabbing Wood’s hand like a boxing referee and thrusting both their arms skyward.
5:37 p.m. | Wood wins the next competition, too, building up a big enough lead in the “change of direction” shuttle challenge that he’s able to jog through the finish, his index finger pointed to the moon.
He’s an example of an athlete who has benefitted from this year’s ruling to allow satellite camps across the south. With no offers from FBS schools, Wood has showed up uninvited to several events and blown rival prospects away. He needs the camps for exposure, and he’s getting it.
Today, he’s receiving individual attention from Michigan and Tennessee assistants, among others.
“Now he’s a change-of-direction champion,” Harbaugh says through his bullhorn. “You’re allowed to be in the winner’s circle more than once.”
5:55 p.m. | Next: A demanding “box” drill that forces one player to tag four others as quickly as possible.
This is happening now: pic.twitter.com/rAKRZdPxfr
— Alex Martin Smith (@asmiff) June 14, 2016
Harbaugh is bouncing around in the 80-degree heat wearing his trademark khakis, a thick, sweater-like long-sleeve shirt and that Delanie Walker jersey. The dude has to be uncomfortable, but he’s so far into his element that body temperature appears to be a non-factor.
In case of harsh sun, he has stored away a bottle of Coppertone sunblock in his back left pocket.
The best part of Harbaugh's outfit… He keeps a bottle of Coppertone sunblock in his back pocket… pic.twitter.com/R7CKR8hAVl
— Alex Martin Smith (@asmiff) June 14, 2016
When kids make nice plays, Harbaugh points at them matter-of-factly and says, “all-star.” Late in the drill, a linebacker makes two diving tackles to set a new camp record.
“Woo!” Harbaugh yells, launching out of his ready stance. “This man’s a beast! This man’s a terror!”
6:22 p.m. | After beginning the “agility circuit,” Harbaugh decides he wants all the juniors and seniors back on the game field.
“This is a battlefield decision,” he says.
As everyone pours through the stadium fencing, Harbaugh forges his own path, a lone wolf in an NFL jersey.
“We’re ahead of schedule, man,” he says to absolutely no one. “Seven minutes ahead of schedule!”
Moments later, he’s running back to the practice field to direct quarterback drills. He makes sure the plastic cones are placed correctly, and then lays out the instructions: Throw the football 30 yards down the left sideline, over the fence and through a set of goalposts that’s parallel with the field. It’s a difficult angle.
“Parents,” Harbaugh yells to the scores of people standing around. “Can you shag balls on the other side of the fence?”
Roughly a dozen oblige. The quarterbacks begin firing footballs. Then, liability issues: A tiny grade schooler on the other side of the fence is struck in the mouth with a wayward pigskin. “Oooooh,” say the people nearby.
Harbaugh has QBs throwing 30 yds thru goalpost from angle. Little kid just got drilled on other side of the fence: pic.twitter.com/RCTA068zW4
— Alex Martin Smith (@asmiff) June 14, 2016
The child, outfitted in a No. 4 Michigan jersey, is crumpled on the ground as his parents tend to him. No crying. Just shock.
Harbaugh notices the commotion.
“Everything OK?” He yells from the practice field.
The child is still lying face down on the ground. Several adults give thumbs up.
6:42 p.m. | Harbaugh is gone. He slipped away from the practice field back to the game field, and now he’s somewhere in the mass of bodies running around Ray Hughes Stadium.
Thankfully, he has his microphone in tow.
“5-minute break,” he declares from somewhere.
Oakland High School basketball coach Troy Bond stands on the track. He figures Michigan chose to hold a camp here due to Murfreesboro’s central location (plenty of players from both Memphis and Knoxville are in attendance), as well as the presence of Oakland’s best player — 5-star athlete JaCoby Stevens — and a group of other intriguing Oakland prospects that includes 3-star safety Kaleb Oliver.
The fact that Michigan recently signed 3-star receiver Nate Johnson from nearby Thompson’s Station doesn’t hurt, either.
Bond mentions the large number of Wolverines fans in attendance, and then stares at Harbaugh, who’s now milling around the field without an obvious purpose.
“He’s definitely got a charisma to him,” Bond says.
6:50 p.m. | Harbaugh has six kids, and four of them are here tonight. Jay, 26, is Michigan’s tight ends and assistant special teams coach.
His three youngest — Jack, Addison and Catherine, all from his second marriage — stand on the sideline and cheer him on. They shake pom-poms and wave to him. Harbaugh waves back.
7:05 p.m. | Michigan’s head coach is now using both back pockets. The Coppertone is still in his left, and a mostly-full plastic bottle of water is now in his right.
We’re back to his favorite quarterback drill: Throw the ball through the uprights.
It’s mesmerizing to watch a long line of hopeful passers try and fail, with Harbaugh adding robotic punctuation at the end of each attempt.
“Eliminated,” he says, rhythmically, as ball after ball sails wide. “Eliminated … eliminated … eliminated.”
Harbaugh running more cutthroat QB competitions. Too real. pic.twitter.com/jzUzyYykcq
— Alex Martin Smith (@asmiff) June 15, 2016
Finally, Cole Smith — a 6-foot-1 quarterback from the Christian Academy of Knoxville — outlasts his competitors. Harbaugh asks him his name, and then crowns him with that boxing-referee move from earlier.
Minutes later, Smith wins another competition, and becomes further proof that relatively unknown players need patience when trying to build relationships with big-time coaches.
“What’s your name?” Harbaugh asks, having already forgot.
“Cole Smith,” the kid repeats.
“Cole Smith!” Harbaugh yells again, raising both their hands in the air.
7:14 p.m. | Harbaugh treats this drill —and, hell, every other drill — with utmost earnestness. He’s too intense for any moment that doesn’t involve a fourth-and-1 near the opponents’ goal line.
Observe: When a quarterback’s throw sails wide, one of the camp’s assistant coaches calls it “good” from underneath the goalposts. Harbaugh is livid. The coach explains himself. Poorly.
“I don’t know what you’re saying!” Harbaugh yells. “I have no idea what you’re saying!”
He stomps back to the throwing line and makes sure the young passer knows he missed the target. Every ensuing throw has added weight, especially when Harbaugh decides to narrate at greater speed. “Good!” or “eliminated!” flies out of his mouth before any football reaches its real moment of truth.
“That’s gooooooooooood,” he says about one pass before changing his mind. “No good. Eliminated.”
7:20 p.m. | We’re on to 1-on-1 drills between wide receivers and cornerbacks, in which the quarterbacks and receivers are given a secret route and the defensive back must put a stop to it.
Everyone is given another simple instruction: “Stay off the ground.” No tackling. No diving. Play it safe.
The first few groups disobey.
“Stand up!” Harbaugh demands. “Or we will move to a new drill.”
This is everyone’s chance to see the camp’s quickest athletes compete against each other. JaCoby Stevens, the 5-star player representing Oakland High, makes a bobbling one-handed catch along the sideline that induces an “ooh” or two from the sideline.
Jeffery Wood, “the fastest man in Tennessee,” runs down a 35-yard rainbow for a diving interception near the corner of the end zone.
Chester Ford, a former Tennessee Volunteers running back and the current coach at Melrose (Memphis) High, watches from a few yards away. He’s buddies with Oakland coach Kevin Creasy, and has brought 11 players from the west, including four who already have SEC offers.
“He’s changing the game,” Ford says of Harbaugh. “He’s setting a standard. If you coach and you love football, you love what he’s doing.”
When asked about Harbaugh’s recent social media spats with Nick Saban, Bret Bielema, Kirby Smart and others, Ford smiles.
“If you look at it right now,” he says, “I think he’s winning.”
Later, he gives Harbaugh more props.
“I’ve not been to a camp like this,” Ford says. “When you look at it at the end of the day, kids remember one thing: what college was here. The Michigan brand, you see the coaches out here, you see the fans out here … if you didn’t know any better, you’d think you was up north.”
7:36 p.m. | It’s time for the gauntlet, a drill from the NFL scouting combine that features one receiver running the width of the field while trying to catch six bullet passes from a line of quarterbacks.
Harbaugh and his assistants are having trouble getting their campers on the right page.
“We’re all jacked up!” Harbaugh yells while running across the field.
A few minutes into the drill, kids are still confused. One receiver runs the wrong direction, while another forgets about the sixth football and nearly gets pegged in the head.
All the while, Harbaugh accidentally leaves his microphone on. It buzzes and clips with his every move until he notices the error and switches it off.
The press-box speaker comes on moments later: “Everything at the concession stand is half price.”
7:42 p.m. | A reporter from SEC Country is at the concession stand. Upon reaching the front of the line, he realizes all the meat is gone, and they don’t take cards, anyway.
Over to the Sweet T’s truck, which is serving Murfreesboro’s finest barbecue; a superlative the reporter accepts as truth after overhearing a nearby conversation and subsequently smelling the vehicle’s pulled pork, smoked chicken wings and related items.
Tony Gaines, the company owner, stands off to the side.
A two-time Ohio Valley champion at Middle Tennessee State in the early 1990s, Gaines is quick to point out perceived problems with today’s youth.
“They just don’t have that killer instinct that I like in a player,” Gaines says. “The game is so watered down now.”
He thinks satellite camps are mostly useless, but says he doesn’t mind helping out his daughter’s school with the food truck.
(Meanwhile, Harbaugh’s voice booms over the sound system. “Nobody’s gotten hurt, right? One guy got hurt?”)
Gaines is asked about the Michigan coach’s controversial camp obsession.
“In order to win, you’ve gotta recruit the South,” Gaines says. “If he don’t recruit the South, he’s not gonna win with the talent he’s getting up North.”
7:51 p.m. | Harbaugh is looking for validation from his southern campers.
“Have you liked the drills?” he asks, and receives an underwhelming response. “Have you liked me?”
The night’s final competition is an abdominal hold. Players must lie down and keep their feet 12 inches off the ground. If they falter, they’re out.
The players are restless after a long evening, and they’re not paying attention to directions.
“QUIT BULLSHITTING!” Harbaugh screams into the microphone. Several people in the stands gasp, and the campers snap back into focus.
Upon completion of the competition — which featured a lot of whining and several counts of “you’re eliminated!” — Harbaugh calls everyone to midfield for a closing speech from Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason. But the microphone fails after finally leaving Harbaugh’s grasp, forcing Mason to deliver his motivational speech without the aid of technology.
“Your brand is your name, and who you represent,” Mason says. “That’s bigger than anything else you can do on the football field.”
Back to Harbaugh.
“If nobody’s making fun of you for what your dreams are and your goals are, you didn’t set ’em high enough,” he says. “Second tip: Your greatest ally as a football player is your position coach…” (and so on).
He brings up his 15-year NFL career.
“That’s a lot of white envelopes they give you every other week,” he says, stumbling around for a word he eventually remembers: “Paychecks.”
After rushing through the end of his speech, Harbaugh bugs out his eyes and yells, “WE’RE OUT OF TIME!” The players put their hands together for a final hurrah, and then camp breaks. Harbaugh walks around with a huge smile, high-fiving any kid that throws a hand at him.
He powers through a short interview session with his three young children in tow, and then begins walking off the field. There’s a flight to catch, and another camp tomorrow in Pittsburg, Kansas.
Before Harbaugh can escape (he’s not trying too hard), the parents of a little boy approach him. Their kid is the one who got clocked by an errant football earlier in the night.
“That was you?” Harbaugh asks, bending down to get on the kid’s level.
The kid nods. The coach imparts his wisdom.
“That would’ve killed a lesser man,” Harbaugh said. “A lesser man would’ve been dead.”