IOWA CITY, Iowa — As his hip buzzed and the golden ticket danced merrily onto his phone, Jeff Martin took a deep breath and did what any other sensible dad would do:
He freaked the hell out.
Not out of malice. Or dread. But because the flip side of attacking everything with AN ENTHUSIASM UNKNOWN TO MANKIND is that your reputation precedes you, and said-reputation might scare the crap out of the occasional parent, sight unseen.
Jeff, this is Jim Harbaugh. Heard really great things about Oliver. I’m really, really excited. Want to talk with you. When can you give me a call?
“And I got that text, and I looked at that and I panicked,” Martin recalls with a grin. “I panicked.”
It was wonderful and exciting and … mildly terrifying. Like Willy Wonka turning up on your front lawn with crazy eyes, a crazy top hat and a crazy glass elevator, vowing to sprinkle the sunrise with dew.
Next stop: Anywhere.
“I didn’t think it was a gag; I knew it was real,” says Martin of the electronic missive this past summer that kicked off the courtship between his son, standout Iowa City West High wide receiver Oliver Martin, and the Michigan football program that would garner Oliver’s signature. “But when I got that text from Harbaugh, I was intimidated. It took me a while to call back.”
Meantime, he pondered.
Holy expletive, what happens next?
Is he going to climb a tree?
Grapple my kid?
Take his shirt off?
Offer to spend a night in my basement?
Tag in a pro wrestler?
Fly in Judge Judy?
“I was actually in the airport, and I was just getting ready to get on the plane, and I asked if I could give him a call the next day,” Jeff Martin says.
“It gave me enough time to get enough courage built up to give him a call. Because I thought it was going to be a real intense conversation. But it was the exact opposite of what I’d expected.”
‘The easiest 35-minute conversation I’ve ever had in my life’
What’s it like when Jim Harbaugh starts chasing your kid, Wonka Bars in hand? Don’t tell anybody, but the Martins found their experiences with Harbaugh The Recruiter, the myth, the legend, the world’s Twitter champion three winters running, to be remarkable for just how unremarkable — and normal — the process turned out to be.
Friendly. Welcoming. Comprehensive. Charming. Passionate with the heat of 17 small suns, sure.
“And when I got on the phone with him, it was the easiest 35-minute conversation that I’d ever had in my life,” Jeff Martin says. “He’s just a really genuine guy that really enjoys talking with people, really likes making connections, establishing relationships. And that was a big part of why Oliver liked Michigan. Along with a lot of other reasons.”
Among them, the fact that the Big House felt less like a mystical chocolate factory and more like … well, home.
“(Harbaugh) just loves spending time with people,” Jeff Martin says. “It doesn’t matter that it’s with the recruit. Or with the recruit’s parents. Or the recruit’s grandparents.”
‘Finally the coaches have to barge into his office, and they get him over to the game.’
— Jeff Martin, father of Michigan 2017 commit Oliver Martin, on Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh
And Dad tells this story, of the time he brought his father — Oliver’s grandfather — to Ann Arbor for a visit the weekend of the Michigan-Wisconsin game, a statement contest for both programs.
It was early Saturday afternoon, “and as game time approached,” he recalls, “we were in coach Harbaugh’s office and there was an accumulation of coaches outside the office. And he just kept talking with us.”
A conversation so cordial and free and easy that time just … flew.
And out of the corner of his eye, Jeff Martin could see more and more staffers with gradually more worried, harried looks, queueing up in the hallway next to the door to Harbaugh’s office.
“Coach, if you need to go,” Jeff Martin interjected, nervously, as the bodies mounted. “Go ahead, go.”
“No, no,” Harbaugh replied. “We’re good. We’re good.”
So, where were we? Oh, yeah …
“And finally the coaches have to barge into his office,” Jeff Martin recalls, “and they get him over to the game.
“If it was me, I think I’d be getting ready, talking to the players. He’s just — he likes talking to people. And I truly believe it’s about relationships with him.”
‘Helping them get to the NFL is my first goal’
Of course, even the restrained Harbaugh recruiting tales somehow find a pathway to “Friends” episode titles. “The One With The Pool,” guest-starring Oliver Martin …
— Brandon Orozco (@borozco_) February 1, 2017
“We didn’t have spare clothes,” Oliver explained on National Signing Day when asked about his future coach’s aquatic exploits. “We wrapped towels around us and we dried off and (put) our coats and shoes back on and went back to the hotel.”
One mile per hour faster.
One percent better.
“The first time I met him, I’d always thought he was always really genuine,” Oliver Martin continued. “A real kind of dude. I really liked talking to him. I felt comfortable with him. I felt like I fit in.”
“They’re just very passionate about what they do,” Jeff Martin says. “I mean, you could tell he’s very passionate about what he does. And it’s easy to see, when he goes about his business, what he wants for the kids. He lives that himself. You know what you’re going to get. I was comfortable with coach Harbaugh and after that first phone call, the more we got to meet with him …”
The more the deflector shields came down.
And the arms opened up.
“I remember asking him a question that I felt silly asking him after I did (it), because I said something about the national championship, the excitement of it, of Michigan being there,” Jeff Martin says. “And (Harbaugh) said: ‘You know, the national championship’s important. But my players, being with my players and helping them get to the NFL is my first goal.’
“I said, ‘OK, fair enough.’ It was a great comment that he made.”
It was an even better sales job. Jeff Martin got his MBA at Iowa. His wife started her undergrad work there.
Black and gold courses through the family veins.
Harbaugh won their hearts anyway.
“I actually saw one of the Iowa coaches (Tuesday) night,” Jeff Martin says. “And you know, he was really great. He’s a friend. And he understands how the process works. And if it’s not the right place, if the player or coach doesn’t think it’s the right place for either side, then it’s in the best interests for each of them to make sure they let each other know. And so Oliver chose Michigan. And he wished Oliver wasn’t (going) there, but he wished us the best and thought it was a great decision for the reasons that we talked about.
“I think (fan anger) that’s going come along those lines is kind of out of sheer ignorance for the overall process. And if they knew Oliver as a person, he’s a likeable kid — they wouldn’t have felt that way if they knew him. That was what everybody that we talked to, some of our closest friends (said).
“And heck, I’m a Hawkeye. I’m a die-hard Hawkeye. A lot of our friends are, too. They hate thinking about him playing in the Maize and Blue. But what they say — and I appreciate this a lot — is, they may not be Michigan fans, but they’re Oliver Martin fans.”
Separate the sorrow. Collect up all the cream.