ROME — In Jim Harbaugh’s world, the fine line between genius and madness is the equator.
“Yeah, we’re going to do it again next year,” the Michigan Wolverines football coach told American reporters at the Stadio dei Marmi as his team put a bow on spring ball 2017 in Italy. “Hopefully, either go to South Africa, or possibly Rio. We’ll get together as a team and decide.”
Harbaugh said he’s never been to Africa. Got a hankering to see Cape Town and Johannesburg.
Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets.
Make it a work trip, bring along 150-ish of your favorite people on the planet to another part of the planet and hop in a shark cage. Genius.
“Well, working together, I found, is the genius,” Harbaugh said of the Maize and Blue’s Roman Holiday. “So many people have come together to make this a productive, healthy experience. Maybe that’s the simple genius of it, just connecting with people and working together with people. It’s been amazing. And that’s been the wonderful part.”
Oh, yes. Hell, yes.
But in hindsight — rettrospetiva — the last seven days went a whole lot deeper than that:
FIVE (ISH) TAKEAWAYS FROM THE WOLVERINES’ WEEK
1. Jim Harbaugh was like a kid in a candy store
Over six days, the man’s smile was practically painted on, shaking hands, trading jerseys and swapping hats. He stuck his mug in any selfie asked of him up and down the city. He sucked water from fountains, got kicked out of a shopping mall for throwing a football, kneeled in prayer, haggled over the price of fruit and was accosted by an accordion player.
And that was just Monday.
On Wednesday, a handshake with Pope Francis moved him to stunned silence. On Friday morning, he sang “Figaro” 14 different times to bemused reporters. On Friday evening, he butchered lines from the movie “Gladiator,” to the delight of everybody in earshot, except his wife, Sarah.
On Saturday afternoon, as he gave his farewell address to scribes outside the headquarters of CONI, the Italian Olympic Committee, it almost felt like saying goodbye to a camp counselor.
“You guys are all normal,” he told reporters, who weren’t quite sure what to make of the compliment. “I think it’s been refreshing. You all say what you want to say. Nobody has to be guarded. Nobody thinks they’ve got to be guarded. And (we) hopefully broke through that barrier, too. That’s a good thing.”
2. Based on three days of practice, the new guys can really fly
With 11 Michigan players plucked in the NFL draft — the most in program history, beating the previous mark of 10 set in 1972 and 1974 when the draft was 17 rounds long — the roster has a ton of holes to patch. But offensive coordinator Tim Drevno and defensive coordinator Don Brown painted the Wolverines of 2017 as a collective that’s deeper, and faster, than any Harbaugh crew yet.
“I feel like we’re more athletic,” Drevno said. “I think we move better than we have before.”
“There’s not a guy here we don’t like,” Brown said. “Every guy has a chance to be an outstanding player, thank the Good Lord.”
3. It wasn’t a recruiting trip so much as it was a perspective one
Every piece of the itinerary — OK, most of the pieces, the paintball and beach segments were primarily messing around — was planned with a purpose. The first event the Wolverines tackled in Rome last Sunday, still jet-lagged, was to distribute dozens of backpacks with Michigan-branded gifts to refugees who had settled in Italy. On Wednesday, they brought gifts for, and played games with, displaced youth at the SOS Children’s Villages. (The kids reportedly beat the U-M contingent, 3-1, on the soccer pitch.)
Why Wednesday night cooking lessons? Because if you learn to make pasta for yourself, you’ll eat for a lifetime. Learn to make pasta for two, you’ve got a date night. Learn to make pasta for four, you’ve got a dinner party.
Why Thursday night opera? Because Lollapalooza comes but once a year, and a little Puccini never hurt anyone.
Not all education happens in the classroom, Harbaugh likes to say. Or, for that matter, on the football field.
“In a sense, it’s very risky,” sophomore Jordan Glasgow said. “Because a football program’s never done anything like this. And Coach Harbaugh seems to want to push the boundaries in that sense. And I honestly feel that this is an extremely smart idea and I would have to give it a ’10,’ because a lot of people wouldn’t get the chance to experience these sort of things in their lifetime.”
3b. Ben Bredeson addressed the team at the end of practice Thursday; Chris Evans did the same on Friday
Bredeson’s message? Look around you. Savor it. How freaking cool is this?
“Once practice starts going, you’re hitting a little bit, you get back in the zone, kind of tune everything out,” he explained later. “But you can look around and we’re across an entire ocean. It’s not like we’re back in Ann Arbor. So just enjoy everything, take in a once-in-a-lifetime experience and make sure everyone is fully aware of what’s going on.
“Everybody’s been looking forward to this, ever since we heard about it. Now that it’s finally happening, you’re just trying to keep your eyes wide for the entire time, making sure that you see everything while you’re still here.”
4. The Wolverines really are an international brand
A total of 96 football coaches from multiple nations — Italy, France, Finland, Hungary, among others — attended a clinic Friday put on by the Michigan staff and FIDAF, the national sanctioning body for American football in Italy.
Finnish coach Juha Hakala started playing flag football in 1989, inspired by his older brother and Joe Montana-to-John Taylor in Super Bowl XXIII.
“I used to have it on a VHS tape,” Hakala said, grinning, as he watched the Wolverines practice on a rain-soaked, sloppy track. “That kind of wore down.”
Yet it also made him a San Francisco 49ers fan for life.
And, later on, a Harbaugh fan.
“It’s awesome,” Hakala, who led the Helsinki Roosters to five straight Finnish titles, said of the Wolverines coach.
“Everybody (among Finland football fans) knows the good coaches, the big-time coaches. I have followed (him) with the 49ers, so it was kind of nice to see him here with the Michigan Wolverines.”
5. See ya in June, when all roads lead to Ann Arbor (again)
At the final practice of the month, an ocean away, Harbaugh walked his squad over to the largest pocket of fans in the marble grandstands, thanked Rome for being a bastion of awesomeness, and led the team in the fight song.
Then he officially gave players May off, to one of the loudest ovations of the day. The Wolverines are scattering like the wind on Monday. Some are heading home to see family. Others are going back to campus, or to internships. Others brought extra gear in order to see the rest of the continent. Patrick Kugler, a senior offensive lineman, is heading to Ireland for a spell with teammates Mason Cole, Grant Newsome, Maurice Hurst and Biff Poggi.
“I just want them,” Harbaugh said, “to have options.”
FIVE TAKEAWAYS FROM ROME
1. If you’re catering to a large group in Roma, soda might wind up being more expensive than wine
No joke. When Michigan officials set up buffets around the city, they were under orders to replace the more common vino offerings at the beverage tables with non-alcoholic options. In some spots, it almost doubled the cost.
2. Uber-ing usually works fine, but …
… it can get pricey. And, during the afternoon rush hour, more than a little hairy.
“The driving here’s insane,” Bredeson chuckled. “Everybody’s flying all over. We’re riding a big bus, and (the driver) is treating it like a moped, weaving in and out of traffic.”
One visiting American writer was in a hired car headed for the team’s run through gladiator school Friday saw his life pass before his eyes. The driver, frustrated by the clogging of a four-lane road south of the city’s center, elected to quickly swerve the vehicle into the bicycle lane of the flow of traffic going the opposite direction for a few blocks — almost taking out a biker coming head-on in the process.
Nobody was hurt, but keep in mind that Roma’s first rule of the road is that, at many intersections, there are no rules.
“The parking is even worse,” Bredeson said. “The parking is a free-for-all. It’s awesome.”
3. If you bring a winged helmet to the pope, give yourself a few extra minutes
When the Wolverines turned up at the gates of Vatican City bearing gifts — a customized Michigan helmet and a pair of blue Jordan brand shoes — the equipment staff noticed security giving the offerings some long, curious looks.
At one point, the guards held up the equipment at a checkpoint longer than usual, leading to some worried glances among the Wolverines. Had they caused some offense? Was the helmet contraband?
Before long, they got their answer. The guards had stopped to examine the helmet in order to pose for a picture with the unusual papal gift before it was moved along.
4. Come for the food, stay for the buildings
It’s true: The eating lives up to the hype twice over. But from the Sistine Chapel to the Pantheon to the remains of the Colosseum, Rome is a living, breathing tribute to classic architecture. Building nerd heaven.
“For us, we’re in George Washington’s house, built 300 years ago, and thinking, ‘Wow, that’s old,’ ” Bredeson mused. “Whereas at the Vatican, that pillar was built in the year 46. We’re just waiting for another number to come after that. It’s incredible to see the age of some of these things, how everything’s still standing and beautiful, still.”
5. Harbaugh — no shock — wants to come back
When the coach was asked about the possibility of playing an actual game in The Eternal City, especially one with a regulation-length field, his ears perked up.
“Yeah, we would definitely consider that, for sure,” Harbaugh said at Stadio dei Marmi, which, for all its splendor, could only accommodate lines for an 80-yard playing surface, making the 40 a truncated midfield point.
“We’d love to partner with them in any and every way. With a new stadium coming (up), it would be natural for Michigan to play a game here when it opens.”
Soccer giant AS Roma, one of the Wolverines’ logistical partners on this trip, is expected to move into a new 52,500-seat home in time for the 2019-20 season.
Which means a sequel for the Maize and Blue’s adventure in the Caput Mundi — Capital of the World — might be less an “if” and more of a “when.”
Where would you like to see Michigan go next? Vote below, and we’ll circle back to the answers later in the week. Ciao!