ROME — Alessandra Mauri deserves a medal, a raise and a hug, not necessarily in that order. Herding Jim Harbaugh is like herding cats, only the cats give a damn.
It’s 1.6 miles from the Spanish Steps at Piazza di Spagna to the Piazza Trilussa, just over the other side of the River Tiber. The labyrinth cuts a neat diagonal swath through the heart of Rome, veering right at the majestic Trevi Fountain, through the Piazza della Rotonda and its domed guardian, the Pantheon. It’s like tip-toeing along a city’s stitch.
Although if you’re walking it with the Michigan football team, as we did Monday, best bring comfortable shoes and an open mind. Because despite the best efforts of Mauri — the Wolverines’ tour guide on the team’s second full day in Italy’s capital — the man at the top turned up with audibles — improvvisazione — and a free jazz approach, smiling as he dove into one cobblestone rabbit hole after another.
Piazza di Spagna
A few ticks after 9 a.m., Harbaugh, embedded ESPN crew in tow, bounded down the famed Spanish Steps, Tigger style, and toward a fountain at the square, the water bubbling navel-high. Italians realized instantly this was someone famous, even if they had no idea who the devil he was.
“James Bond, right here,” the coach marveled.
The Spanish Steps are for lovers and models, a living postcard. And the lovers and models on hand looked somewhat bemused at the speed at which a half-dozen cameras swarmed to the man in the glasses and blue baseball cap.
Goaded by his players and staff, he puckered up to one of the spigots and took a hearty sip.
“It was good,” Harbaugh told the press throng. “Spring water.”
In 2015, Italy responded to a rash of terror attacks in continental Europe by putting roughly 5,000 heavily armed soldiers on the streets, with roughly 500 of those stationed at select religious, government or tourist stops in Rome.
The Wolverines, broken into a small groups of a dozen or so each, passed two such soldiers, assault rifles pressed into the crook of their elbows. Curious at the sight of such powerful firearms on open display, some staffers reached for cameras.
“No fotografie,” the soldiers warned, not smiling.
“You’ve got to listen to people with machine guns,” Harbaugh replied, and bounced on.
The Eternal City’s biggest movie star — Roman Holiday, Three Coins in a Fountain, La Dolce Vita — stands 86 feet high and 161 feet wide. It was built at the end of the Acqua Vergine (or “Virgin Waters”) aqueduct, at the junction of three streets — thus the name tre vie, or Trevi.
While father Jack haggled with vendors over a selfie stick, Harbaugh knew the drill, tossing a coin with his right hand over his left shoulder, then another.
First one grants a wish, the second one luck. Allegedly. When the cameras pressed for the wish, the coach smiled.
“Championship,” Harbaugh said.
“Don’t tell them,” his daughter said, slapping his arm.
“Does it hurt to tell?” Harbaugh countered, curiously. “Does that hurt the wish, to tell them what the wish is?”
Galleria Alberto Sordi
A brisk stroll through one of the city’s most famous indoor shopping arcades came to a sudden halt. A few minutes after arriving, Harbaugh decided to start throwing around a football along one of the arcade’s pedestrian walks with young Jackson Hamilton, son of passing coordinator Pep Hamilton.
Unlike earlier, security wasn’t wearing fatigues or carrying rifles. But they were similarly unamused with Harbaugh’s impromptu game of catch, closing in on the coach about four throws in and ordering him to take it somewhere else:
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He bounced outside, ball tucked under his arm, to be greeted by the Column of Marcus Aurelius in the center of Piazza Colonna.
Harbaugh nudged QB Wilton Speight.
“Do you think you could hit that tower with one throw?” the coach asked.
Speight eyed it up.
“Can you do it?” a reporter asked.
“I’m not trying to get kicked out of Rome Day 1,” the quarterback countered.
“Hey, I just asked a question,” Harbaugh chuckled. “I didn’t say throw it. I asked if he could.”
The coach surveyed his tour group, then looked at the column again.
“Could you do it, Jackson?” he asked. “Hit the tower? Don’t do it, though.”
On the other side of the street, gifted with little or no pedestrian traffic, Speight let loose a few throws. Again, security closed quickly, ordering it to stop.
“You can’t throw anywhere in Rome,” he sighed.
A cameraman asked him to imitate what he’d been told. Speight did the full Dikembe Mutombo, windshield wiping the morning air with his index finger.
“It’s the famous finger-wag of Italy,” Speight cracked.
Upon greeting the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome, a survivor of wind, rain, earthquakes, and anything else under the “acts of God” insurance statute, Harbaugh sounded awed.
“Why don’t more people build buildings like a sphere?” the Wolverines coach declared. “Build a sphere.”
Mauri, a native Roman, rattled off the pros and cons of her people’s legacy upon world culture over the preceding centuries, often taking an almost apologetic tone.
“Don’t sell yourselves short!” Harbaugh shouted, unprompted, and the group laughed. “You conquered the world!”
“Yeah, but they lost it,” someone shouted back.
“That’s pretty good,” the coach said. “You ruled the world for a while.”
Another film star. Angels & Demons, Coins in the Fountain, Catch-22, National Lampoon’s European Vacation …
“That’s in that movie,” Harbaugh noted as he arrived, and we’ll leave it up to your imagination as to which movie he was referring.
Another street vendor rushed in — “Selfie? Selfie?” they asked, hurriedly — and Harbaugh bit.
“Five? Five. Yes. OK, for five. I’ll bring it for five,” the coach said, bartering down the going rate for a selfie stick.
“It’s charging now, Dad,” Harbaugh continued, turning to father Jack. “It’s got the little button, see? The little button, right there.”
“Where’s Jackie?” Jack asked, searching for Jim’s mom. “Jackie’s got the money.”
“Show me how it works,” Jim pleaded to his father. Their new toys matched, only Jim got his selfie stick much cheaper.
“Just that button?” Jim said. Another grin, wider this time. “You got it. Perfect! For 5 dollars.”
“Mine cost 15,” Jack replied.
“Two of them — that’s awesome,” Jim said. “Why wouldn’t you have one of these?”
Around the corner, and a chance to practice with the stick again.
“That thing went from 10 to 5 pretty fast,” Jim recalled.
And, as if on cue from the Roman god of knock-offs, the selfie button crapped out.
“Well, it worked just fine 2 minutes ago,” Jim said. “I can’t get it working. It’s not working.”
“When we rebooted it,” someone suggested, “it started up.”
Selfie stick back online, it was back to the square again. The vendor was still there, hawking wares from throng to throng.
“My guy!” Harbaugh shouted.
His guy walked past, smiling. And picked up speed in the opposite direction.
“Did you watch me negotiate, fight for a good investment for you?” Jack asked Jim as they rushed to catch up with Mauri and the rest of the group.
“You paid top dollar for yours, though.”
“I paid more than what was originally offered. It was a buy-up.”
“He paid 20. (The vendor) gave him back 10 Euros.”
“Then he asked me for two more.”
“He wanted two American dollars.”
“I had no idea how it worked. It was originally 10 Euros. And I walked away and (thought), ‘I don’t think it worked out.’ I turned around and the guy had just disappeared. He was gone.”
She wasn’t the only one.
“You’re slow, guys,” Mauri asked, as kindly as she could. “Why?”
“We promise to do better,” Jim said.
Campo de’ Fiori
Nor did it help that Jim was recognized by at least one passer-by at almost every site. Usually an American. A self-described “BYU man” stopped and said he just wanted to give the coach props. Mostly the amore dripped from 49ers fans, who knew a good thing when they had it and now miss the hell out of it.
In front of the historic Campo de’ Fiori market, it’s love from two Germans. And another selfie pose.
“You’ve got to get one of these selfie sticks,” Harbaugh gushed. “They’re amazing.”
Tour guides often use an old car antenna with a scarf or ribbon tied at the top, like a flag, so as to be more easily spotted by wayward group members.
Harbaugh figured this was a good idea for wayward group members, too, so he started using his sometimes-working selfie stick like one of those antennae, only he plopped his blue block ‘M’ cap at the top of the stick and raises it to the sky.
Mauri appeared somewhat amused. Somewhat.
Harbaugh was spotted again in front of the museum. Only they didn’t want a picture.
“Let’s go Hawks!” a voice cried from a safe distance.
Harbaugh kept walking.
“Let’s goooooo Hawwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwks!”
Before the pedestrian bridge to Trilussa, another fan.
“He says, ‘I love MEEE-ch-gan,’ ” Harbaugh recalled, beaming. “I love the way he says that.”
The coach offered to take a picture of his family in front of an elderly man playing an accordion on the bridge. As they posed, the man suddenly stopped playing and barked at Harbaugh in Italian, shooing him away with an angry arm.
“Sorry,” Harbaugh said. “Sorry.”
Trilussa was the pen name for Carlo Alberto Salustri, an Italian dialect poet. A statue of his likeness, which bears a resemblance to a balder Walt Disney, adorns the square that bears his name.
“He wrote a lot of poems in Roman dialect, criticizing the city,” Mauri explained. “You know, he’s very loved by the Romans, by the locals.”
It was also the end of the road, where coaches, families and players turned in their audio boxes and earpieces.
“Thank you, Alessandra,” Harbaugh said, pleased as punch. “You’re the best. I’m going with you every time.”
Once Harbaugh was out of ear shot, a scribe asked Mauri: Shared sentiment? Sentimento condiviso?
“Very much. Yeah, very much,” she replied. “We had fun together.”
And, as it turned out, even more fun apart. Mauri’s either a glutton for punishment or for adventure, as she’s signed on to help lead Harbaugh and the Wolverines through Vatican City on Wednesday.
Which reminds us that there’s a special place in heaven for souls like Alessandra’s. Although you get the feeling she’s walked a pretty fair slice of it in this life already.