When Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh showed up in a high school gymnasium in eastern Ohio to watch a basketball game, Christa Schuring-Stephens did a double-take.
The East Canton cheerleading coach asked one of the football coaches if it was, in fact, Harbaugh. It was.
Schuring-Stephens, a professed Wolverines fan, couldn’t approach him. Her cheerleaders approached Harbaugh, who was in attendance to watch offensive lineman Joel Honigford play basketball for opposing Garaway High School in January 2017. They took a photo with Harbaugh, and one of the East Canton cheerleaders made sure to tell him that her coach was a huge Michigan fan.
“And you have no idea what she goes through during Michigan-Ohio State week,” the cheerleader told Harbaugh.
Schuring-Stephens built up the nerve to take a photo with Harbaugh, but she won’t share it.
“It’s such a bad photo of me,” Schuring-Stephens said, laughing. “I had the biggest, cheesiest grin on my face when I took the picture with him. But I was never so happy.”
Recruiting visits are part and parcel of the life of a college football coach who travels the country to make pitches to high school football players. Sometimes that means showing up to a school or basketball game. When Harbaugh shows up, it creates a frenzy.
“In the two years I’ve been at East Canton, he’s the only coach of that magnitude to visit our school,” said East Canton athletic director Doug Miller. “And that became the big news for a few days here, that Jim Harbaugh was at our school.”
Creating a buzz
Harbaugh and his assistant coaches typically visit at least a dozen prospective signees in the span of a few weeks before Signing Day. Sometimes they will make in-home visits, but other times they’ll stop by a school or a sporting event.
People notice when Harbaugh is in the building.
It typically happens like this, according to students, coaches and administrators: Someone spots him and sends a text message to a friend, and the chain continues. Or someone posts a photo on Snapchat or Twitter for people to see. Word spreads like wildfire, especially in a small school.
At 7:30 a.m. on Dec. 15, 2017, the buzz reached a fever pitch in the halls of Garber High School in Essexville, Mich. Harbaugh was somewhere in the building.
He checked in at the front office, then started to walk around the school as he prepared to meet with Ben VanSumeren five days before the early National Signing Day.
The students at Garber recognized Harbaugh as he strode through the hallways, and some asked to take pictures with him. VanSumeren didn’t meet with Harbaugh until later that morning, but he found out from his classmates that Harbaugh gave the students specific instructions.
“They had to be the right age to take the pictures,” said VanSumeren, a fullback in Michigan’s incoming freshman class. “If you were in high school and weren’t a senior, it was against [NCAA] rules. He could only take pictures with seniors, and he explained that to everybody who was taking pictures.
“I was working out in the morning and I got here at 8:30, the time I was supposed to meet him, but everyone told me about it. I don’t think we’ve had anything like that here.”
— Brendon Grawburg (@B_grawburg) December 15, 2017
Harbaugh has visited Berkeley Prep in Tampa, Fla., three times: once to hold practices for the Outback Bowl in December, and twice to meet with recruits, including tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere.
Berkeley Prep coach Dominick Ciao considers it an honor when any FBS coach visits the school to meet with his players. Ohio State’s Urban Meyer has visited, as has Miami’s Mark Richt and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney.
When Harbaugh visited, Ciao noticed an unusual amount of people — faculty members and students, in particular — milling around the football offices.
“When people found out he was coming, we always had a few people who were trying to grab for his time,” Ciao said. “With the students, it’s the same thing. Once they know he’s here, they’re waiting in the hall and waiting for him to leave, and it’s always pretty exciting.
“And it’s not just Jim Harbaugh, either. Everyone embraces these coaches who take the time to visit. We’re fortunate to have a few who’ve visited.”
At Lowndes (Ga.) High School, Harbaugh spent more than two hours talking with coach Randy McPherson and his staff. Only a fraction of that time centered around Michigan signee Michael Barrett.
“We’ve had other coaches visit, and it was the same feel,” McPherson said. “That’s nothing different from when coaches such as Nick Saban or Kirby Smart visit. They know Lowndes, and when they come here they spend time here. But for a first-time trip for Jim Harbaugh, two hours is a long time. The only thing that got Harbaugh out of here was that his assistant coaches were ready to go.
“His time here was a record for a head coach’s visit.”
When Hamden (Conn.) Hall played Jan. 23 at St. Luke’s School in New Canaan, boys basketball coach Sean Doherty looked to the opposite side of the gymnasium. He wasn’t prepared to see Harbaugh sitting on one of the lower bleachers.
Harbaugh was in the stands to see Luke Schoonmaker, a tight end in Michigan’s 2018 recruiting class. As a former college and AAU basketball coach, Doherty was used to seeing basketball coaches such as Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski or former Indiana coach Bobby Knight walk into a gym. But not a high-profile football coach.
“You could tell someone important was in the gym,” Doherty said. “All the people were pointing and looking over at him. I saw people going over to him and looking at him, and stopping to talk to him. Definitely, there was a buzz.”
Harbaugh ducked into the Hamden Hall locker room after the basketball team’s 70-51 win and addressed the players. But he only took photos with seniors, per NCAA guidelines.
70-51 win over St Luke’s!Congrats on an exciting game. In attendance…Jim Harbaugh (14 year player in NFL, Coach of the Year San Fran 49ers 2012, Head Coach Univ. Michigan) watching Luke Schoonmaker #23. Photos with seniors & coaches. Thanks for the locker room talk! So cool! pic.twitter.com/t3ceSeqa4u
— HHBasketball (@HHBasketball1) January 24, 2018
One of Harbaugh’s more notable school visits came in October 2016 when he visited Antioch (Calif.) High School to see Najee Harris, the No. 1 running back in the country that year, during a bye week for the Wolverines. Harbaugh wasn’t allowed to speak with Harris because he visited the school during the NCAA’s mandated fall quiet period. But nothing stopped him from watching Harris’ game.
Michigan’s coaching staff notified school principal Louie Rocha that Harbaugh would visit. Rocha prepared for Harbaugh to discreetly enter the stadium through a back gate, but instead was notified of Harbaugh’s arrival.
“Jim Harbaugh is at the concession stand,” a parent volunteer told him. “He’s buying food at the snack bar.”
Harbaugh approached Rocha with two hot dogs, a large soda and nachos and immediately began talking with Antioch’s principal about Harris. Harbaugh, Rocha said, remembered him from a visit to the school in January.
Harbaugh didn’t go unnoticed as he stood on the sidelines, either. Just before halftime, the school’s activities director approached Rocha and asked if Harbaugh could announce the homecoming court.
“Hey,” Harbaugh said. “You know my bucket list? You know the part that says, ‘announce the homecoming queen?’ Let’s check that off!”
Jim Harbaugh announced the homecoming queen for Antioch High School while visiting 5⭐️ RB Najee Harris. 😂👑 pic.twitter.com/VYqXGdGDT3
— Campus Insiders (@CampusInsiders) October 17, 2016
“The place went crazy,” Rocha said. “And kids were just in awe of him, because of his enthusiasm and the way he handles his business.
“But to have Jim Harbaugh come and meet with me and want to get familiar with school and learn about one of our players? That was so unique.”